Judge Tammy Kemp is a woman of faith. For more than 25 years, she has attended the same church in Dallas, where she serves as a deaconess. She keeps a Bible in her chambers, positioned on top of her laptop to remind herself to start her day with prayer. And she believes in redemption: In her courtroom, she encourages defendants to use their time in prison to remake their lives.
So when one of those defendants — a former police officer convicted of murdering her unarmed neighbour — asked the judge for advice and a hug last week, the judge's thoughts turned to a sermon she had heard in church the previous Sunday. The Parable of the Lost Sheep tells the story of a shepherd who still has 99 sheep in his flock, but looks for the one sheep that is lost.
"Our pastor had said: 'If we're going to attract the one, we've got to show love and compassion.' And then I also thought, God says my job is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly," Kemp said. "So how can you refuse this woman a hug?"
That moment of compassion, in which Kemp gave the former officer a Bible and a hug, was fiercely debated in the days after the trial. Some praised it as a rare and much-needed moment of humanity; others criticized it as potentially unconstitutional and wondered whether a black defendant would receive similar attention in the criminal justice system.
For many, it was simply the latest moment to be debated in an unusual and emotional case, in which an off-duty white police officer, Amber R. Guyger, fatally shot an unarmed black man, Botham Shem Jean, in his own apartment, claiming she thought she was facing an intruder in her own apartment. Community activists had looked to the judge, who is black, to help ensure a fair outcome, and in the end a diverse jury returned a rare verdict of murder, punishing her to 10 years in prison.
Speaking publicly Monday for the first time since the trial, Kemp, 57, said she was not thinking about Guyger's race when she agreed to give her a hug, nor did she offer the Bible unprompted.
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Far from regretting her decision, Kemp said she only wished she had not hesitated before agreeing to the hug. "I'm a little embarrassed to say she had to ask me twice," Kemp said.
Kemp, with her black robe and thick pearl necklace, became a well-known figure during the trial, which was streamed online and closely followed across the country. Her exasperated expression when she found out that the district attorney had given a television interview that may have broken a gag order in the case was widely shared in a GIF. She also showed uncommon emotion, at times tearing up on the bench.
But it was the final moments in the courtroom, after the trial had formally ended, that drew the most attention.
After a jury sentenced Guyger to prison for murder, Jean's brother took the witness stand to address her directly. Rather than expressing anger, he asked to give her a hug in the courtroom.
"He said 'please,' and he said 'please' again," said Kemp, when asked about her decision to allow him to step down from the witness stand. "I just could not refuse him that."
Kemp, a former prosecutor who took the bench as a Democrat in January 2015, said she approached this case like any other: She got to work each day early in the morning, sometimes while it was still dark, so she could arrange for coffee and make sure jurors had the Greek yogurt and Gatorades they needed to get through a long day in court.
When witnesses testified, she took notes in longhand on a legal pad. And to avoid directing the jury's attention in any one direction, she said she tried to glance around the courtroom periodically.
While video cameras showed the trial from the back of the courtroom, leaving only the back of Guyger's head visible when she was not on the witness stand, Kemp had a different view from the bench. She said she watched Guyger's composure transform during the trial: Early on, the defendant showed no emotion, and avoided looking at the judge. Later on, though, when the punishment phase of the trial began, her demeanour changed. Every time Kemp looked at her, "she was looking at me," the judge said. "Following that guilty verdict, she was a different woman in that courtroom."
At the end of the trial, after the jury had been dismissed, Kemp came down from the bench to offer her condolences to Jean's parents, as is her habit when a family has lost a loved one. "I told them that they raised a remarkable son in Botham," she said.
Next, she said, she stopped by the defense table to offer a word of encouragement to Guyger. "I said to her, 'Ms. Guyger, Brandt Jean has forgiven you,'" Kemp recalled, referring to Botham Jean's brother. "'Now please forgive yourself so that you can live a productive life when you get out of prison.'"
What followed, she said, was an exchange whose equivalent she could not remember in her decades as a lawyer and her nearly five years on the bench.
"She asked me if I thought her life could have purpose," Kemp recalled. "I said, 'I know that it can.' She said, 'I don't know where to start, I don't have a Bible.'" Kemp said she thought of the Bible in her chambers. "I said, 'Well, hold on, I'll get you a Bible.'"
She came back out and, together, they read John 3:16, a passage about redemption.
That is when Guyger did something that caught the judge off guard: She asked for a hug.
Kemp hesitated. She had hugged defendants plenty of times before — but usually, it was after they had successfully completed probation or drug treatment. She could not recall hugging any newly convicted killers on their way to prison.
"The act that she committed was horrific — she murdered Mr. Jean," Kemp said. "But none of us are one thing that we've done."
She thought of what it means to comfort those who are hurting. She had hugged Jean's parents only minutes earlier, and in the end, she reached out and hugged Guyger, too.
The gesture immediately drew criticism from social justice activists, who pointed to cases where defendants of color were shown far less compassion for less serious crimes. Others said that religion had no place in the courtroom.
"It's way out of bounds," said Andrew L. Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed a complaint against the judge in Texas with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The group argued that Kemp's decision to "preach the Bible" violated the First Amendment.
Even if Guyger expressed an interest, Seidel said, it was "wildly inappropriate" to bring a Bible into the courtroom. "It's still her religion that she is promoting on what is apparently a very vulnerable person," he said of the judge's actions.
Kemp said she aimed to treat everyone, victim and defendant, "with dignity and respect." She also argued that criminal justice reform was needed across the board, especially in cases in which a defendant is expected to one day walk out of prison.
"The goal of the criminal justice system should be to punish and to discourage and deter," she said. "But the person who is going to re enter my society, it's my hope they can be a better person than when they went in."
Written by: Sarah Mervosh
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES