The first hug was stunning enough — a young man embracing his brother’s killer for nearly a minute in the middle of the courtroom, just after telling the woman: “I forgive you.”
“I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you,” 18-year-old Brandt Jean assured Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer convicted Tuesday for shooting Botham Jean as he ate ice cream in his own home. Guyger said she aimed to kill out of fear after entering the wrong apartment by mistake; jurors said it was murder.
Then came another unlikely embrace — from the judge in the case that sparked renewed protests Wednesday as Guyger received a 10-year-sentence that some called a “slap in the face.” With the emotional trial wrapped up, Judge Tammy Kemp walked over in her black robe to give Guyger a Bible. Then, she wrapped her arms around Guyger and murmured to her. Together, they prayed.
The two extraordinary moments would polarize, just like the case that led up to them, raising fresh questions about race in a white officer’s fatal shooting of a black man.
For some, the hugs and words of understanding were testament to the power of radical compassion, often rooted in religious convictions — “a spirit of forgiveness, faith and trust,” as the Dallas Police Department put it in a Wednesday evening tweet.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) praised Brandt Jean for a demonstration of “Christian love,” while District Attorney John Creuzot called the teen’s address to Guyger an “amazing act of healing.”
“I would hope that the greater community, not just Dallas, not just Texas, but the greater United States, could gain a message from that,” Creuzot said.
Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, called the teen’s hug an “amazing example of faith, love, and forgiveness.”
But others were confused, troubled and outraged. They saw the latest feel-good episode in a long history of black people extending quick absolution to white people in the face of horrific wrongs.
“Black people, when they experience injustice, there’s almost an expectation that we will immediately forgive and therefore can sort of move on,” Jemar Tisby, an African American historian and writer, told The Washington Post. “So I think a lot of people are reacting — that we have a right to be angry, a right to grieve, and a right to want justice.”
The conversation that played out on social media as clips of both Brandt Jean’s and Kemp’s moments with Guyger went viral continued a debate familiar to those who watched or read about a similarly startling scene of mercy four years ago, when loved one after loved one of the victims of white supremacist Dylann Roof — all black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C. — offered prayers and forgiveness just days after Roof’s deadly rampage.
On Wednesday, the congregation at the Dallas West Church of Christ, where the Jean family went to worship after the sentencing, met a video of Brandt Jean’s words to Guyger with applause and tears, the Associated Press reported.
Botham Jean’s father, Bertram Jean, told CNN that, like his son Brandt, he bears “no hatred” for Guyger and would like to become her friend. He traced his outlook and his son’s to a religious upbringing: “If you will not forgive, neither will your father forgive you,” he said.
Bertram Jean said he thought Guyger’s sentence could have been longer.
“But the jury has spoken,” he added.
The responses of victims’ relatives in both Dallas and Charleston were part of a long tradition in the black Christian community, Tisby said, one he thinks is rooted in everything African Americans have endured since slavery. It’s an attitude he sees in Fannie Lou Hamer, the black civil rights activist who once said, “Ain’t no such a thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face” — and an attitude he witnessed this past weekend at commemorations of a 1919 massacre of black Americans, where he said people spoke of justice but not revenge.
“There has been such a long history of injustice perpetrated against black people in the United States that if we didn’t forgive, we run the risk of being consumed by bitterness,” Tisby said.
Back in 2015, others found the attitudes of the Charleston shooting victims’ families hard to comprehend. In a New York Times article titled “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” writer Roxane Gay expressed wonder at the reactions and slammed a society she called overeager for the mourners’ compassion.
“White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present,” she wrote.
Similar misgivings were on display Wednesday as the Guyger case came to an end. The judge’s hug for Guyger — highly unusual, many commented — provoked particular controversy as some pointed to other convicts who received no such shows of kindness.
“Did Crystal Mason get a hug when she was sent to jail for voting?” one critic asked on Twitter, referencing a black mother in the same state of Texas who was infamously sentenced to five years in prison for casting a ballot illegally.
Tisby thought of epithets like “thug” thrown at black people and dehumanizing discussions of Michael Brown, the teen fatally shot by police in 2014. African Americans stereotyped as threatening or prone to crime are often denied the sort of empathy Guyger received during her sentencing, he said; others online echoed his sadness at uneven distribution of the kind of compassion Brandt Jean showed.
“I think black people are legitimately upset when we extend grace in the face of clear and blatant injustices, but we’re never extended that same grace in the public mind,” Tisby said.
Guyger has said her actions toward Botham Jean had nothing to do with race, testifying tearfully to her remorse and saying the shooting was “about being scared” rather than “about hate.” But a lawyer for the Jean family framed Guyger’s conviction as a “victory for black people in America” and an affirmation that their lives matter.
Guyger has also come under fire for offensive texts made public before her sentencing: Messages show the former officer joking about the death of Martin Luther King Jr., disparaging black colleagues and responding to a friend’s warning that a dog “may be racist” with the words, “It’s okay. I’m the same.”
Those texts were on the minds of some people dismayed at Judge Kemp’s gestures to Guyger.
“How Botham Jean’s brother chooses to grieve is his business. He’s entitled to that. But this judge choosing to hug this woman is unacceptable,” tweeted Atlantic writer Jemele Hill, telling people to remember that “this convicted murderer is the same one who laughed about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.”
Legal experts had questions for Kemp, too. Kenneth Williams, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, said he’d never seen anything like Wednesday’s interaction with Guyger in his 30 years of legal practice. It was not only rare but inappropriate, he said, since Kemp might have to weigh in on further case developments if Guyger appeals.
“She has indicated an affinity or sympathy for the defendant,” he said, suggesting the case might have to go to another judge.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a complaint against Kemp with Texas’s State Commission on Judicial Conduct, saying “compassion crossed the line into coercion” when the judge gave Guyger a Bible and advised her on reading it.
“It is perfectly acceptable for private citizens to express their religious beliefs in court, but the rules are different for those acting in a governmental role,” the FFRF’s letter states.
The Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a legal nonprofit that says it promotes religious “liberty,” tweeted in response that it “stands with Judge Tammy Kemp and will gladly lead the charge in defending her noble and legal actions.”
Kemp did not respond to a request for comment. The Post was unable to reach Brandt Jean, and an inquiry to the Jean family’s lawyer was not immediately returned.
Andra Gillespie saw grace in the Jean family’s response to 26-year-old Botham Jean’s killer: It was “their way of trying to fulfill their Christian obligation to forgive her in spite of everything that happened,” she said. But the political science professor at Emory University and devout evangelical also cautioned — as she did after the Charleston church shooting — against letting forgiveness dull the urgency of injustice. Admiration for Brandt Jean’s speech shouldn’t distract people from deeper, troubling questions raised by Botham Jean’s death, she said — questions like, “Why do people kill black people before they ask questions they might ask of other people?”
“My problem is when outsiders look at that situation and they get touched by the forgiveness and then they get lulled into thinking we don’t have to do anything else for that situation. … We don’t take the lessons from it that we should,” Gillespie said.