Texas judge under fire for hugging convicted killer

Paul J. Weber and Jake Bleiberg
Associated Press

Dallas – Judges don’t usually hug convicted murderers in the courtroom or hand them Bibles before sending them off to prison.

That is what made Judge Tammy Kemp’s actions so extraordinary in the closing moments of the trial of a white former Dallas police officer who fatally shot her black neighbor.

The tearful embrace before Amber Guyger was taken away to serve 10 years touched off a debate over whether Kemp – a black former prosecutor who fasted and prayed before deciding to run for judge in 2014 – demonstrated admirable compassion or crossed an ethical line. One group asked for a judicial misconduct investigation.

State District Judge Tammy Kemp, right, gives Botham Jean's mother, Allison Jean, a hug while Botham's father, Bertrum Jean, stands at left, following the 10-year sentence given to former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger for murder, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Dallas. Guyger, who said she mistook neighbor Botham Jean's apartment for her own and fatally shot him in his living room, was sentenced to a decade in prison.

Activists also questioned whether a black defendant would have received the same treatment, adding a final layer of anger to a high-profile case that touched on issues of race.

“It’s just her Christian nature,” said former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who was once Kemp’s boss and in 2006 became the first black elected district attorney in Texas history. Kemp, he said, would pray when their office tackled complex cases.

“You’re having people of color that have the opportunity to make judges now,” Watkins said. “Their life experience and their religious points of view are different than what we’ve seen in the past.”

In September 2018, Guyger lived one floor below Botham Jean and said she entered his apartment thinking it was hers. Mistaking him for a burglar, she drew her gun and fired. The judge also hugged members of Jean’s family and allowed Jean’s younger brother to hug Guyger.

But some called Kemp’s actions a step backward. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular Wisconsin-based group that routinely files lawsuits challenging religious displays in government, accused her of proselytizing from the bench.

The group filed a complaint Thursday with a Texas state agency that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct. At the heart of the protest was Kemp giving a Bible – one of her own – to Guyger and recommending a verse. Guyger had already been sentenced, and the jury had been dismissed.

“You can have mine. I have three or four more at home,” Kemp said to Guyger. “This is your job for the next month. Right here, John 3:16.”

Guyger then rose from the defense table to embrace the black-robed judge. Kemp appeared to hesitate for a moment, then wrapped her arms around the fired police officer.

As attorneys and sheriff’s deputies looked on, Kemp gently patted Guyger on the back with one hand and appeared to whisper in her ear.

“Delivering Bibles and personally witnessing as a judge is an egregious abuse of power,” the foundation wrote in a letter to Texas officials.