Law & the Courts

Atheist Group Complains Over Judge Kemp’s Exchange with Amber Guyger

Amber Guyger, charged in the killing of Botham Jean in his own home, arrives on the first day of the trial in Dallas, Texas, September 23, 2019. (Jeremy Lock/Reuters)

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a pro-atheist advocacy group, filed a complaint on Thursday with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct objecting to “proselytizing actions” that “overstepped judicial authority,” after Judge Tammy Kemp handed a Bible to convicted former police officer Amber Guyger in the moments after the trial had concluded.

Guyger was sentenced Wednesday to ten years in prison for the murder of her downstairs neighbor Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black accountant who Guyger shot in his own apartment after mistaking him for an intruder in her own.

In the moments after the trial, Jean’s younger brother gave a powerful witness impact statement in which he forgave Guyger and called her to “give your life to Christ.” The two then embraced in an emotional moment.

After the statement, Kemp met with both Jean’s family and Guyger. She gave the former Dallas police officer her Bible, telling her “this is your job for the next month. Right here . . . He has a purpose for you. This will strengthen you. You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.” The two then embraced as Kemp told Guyger, “You haven’t done as much as you think you have, and you can be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”

“We understand that it was an emotional moment, particularly when the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, publicly forgave and hugged Guyger,” Freedom from Religion’s letter reads. “ . . . But here, compassion crossed the line into coercion. And there can be few relationships more coercive than a sentencing judge in a criminal trial and a citizen accused and convicted of a crime.”

The organization admits that it does not know whether or not Guyger is Christian, but claims that “the gesture would still have been inappropriate and unconstitutional because Judge Kemp was acting in her official governmental capacity.” Referencing the Establishment Clause, Don Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-presidents of the group who penned the letter, explain that “it violates a vital constitutional principle for a sitting judge to promote personal religious beliefs while acting in her official capacity.”

“Judge Kemp transmitted her personal religious beliefs as a state official in an official proceeding of the gravest nature, a setting that imposed on everyone in the courtroom: attorneys, staff, family members and the convicted,” they state.

The announcement is not the first controversy to surface in the fallout after the trial. After the sentencing on Wednesday, Jean’s mother addressed the media and stated “That ten years in prison is for reflection and for her to change her life. But there is much more to be done by the city of Dallas. The corruption we saw must stop.” Later that night, The Dallas Morning News revealed the Dallas police department will undergo an internal review of incidents made public during the trial. On Friday, Dallas church leaders and community activists are expected to call on the Justice Department to examine policing practices in the city.

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