A Dallas judge “overstepped” when she “inappropriately” hugged Amber Guyger and gave her a Bible moments after the former police officer was sentenced to a decade in prison for murdering her unarmed black neighbor, a national atheist group claims.
In a complaint filed Thursday with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Freedom From Religion Foundation alleged Dallas County Judge Tammy Kemp acted unconstitutionally at the sentencing hearing for Guyger, 31, who was convicted of killing 26-year-old Botham Jean inside his apartment after mistaking his unit for her own.
The Wisconsin-based national non-profit group, which has more than 30,000 members, is now asking the commission to investigate Kemp’s “proselytizing actions,” claiming they “overstepped judicial authority.”
“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 Thursday letter to the state commission said. “We, too, believe our criminal justice system needs more compassion from judges and prosecutors. But here, compassion crossed the line into coercion.”
Guyger was found guilty of murder Tuesday morning for the Sept. 6, 2018, slaying. In her testimony, she claimed she mistook Jean for an intruder and acted out of self-defense.
After an emotional two-day sentencing hearing that included testimony from both the Guyger and Jean families, she was sentenced to a decade in prison and will be eligible for parole in five years.
Two jurors, identified by the court as Juror 21 and 34, said in a Friday interview with Good Morning America that deciding Guyger’s sentence was “one of the hardest things” they’ve had to do. The pair said they took into consideration what Jean would have wanted—knowing they could face backlash for not giving her a stiffer sentence.
“They were asking us to take an eye for an eye for Botham, and I feel like he isn’t someone who would take an eye for an eye,” Juror 21 said. “He would turn the other cheek.”
“No matter how many years we would have gave Amber Guyger, it’s not bringing Botham back,” Juror 34 added. “It was a mistake, and the 10 years will be enough time for her to get back out there and try to do something better with her life.”
While the ruling initially sparked protests at the courthouse, they were quickly quenched after Jean’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt, publicly forgave Guyger in an emotional impact statement and gave her a hug that elicited audible sobs in the room.
Kemp then had private conversations with both the Jean family and Guyger, at one point offering the former cop a Bible and reading the passage John 3:16 during their four-minute exchange.
“This has been put in front of you for a reason,” the judge told Guyger. “He has a purpose for you.”
Before Guyger was escorted out of the courtroom to begin her sentence, Kemp hugged her and said: “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.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation alleges that while most of the exchange was inaudible, enough can be heard “to show an ethics violation” that should be further investigated.
“Judge Kemp is free to attend church as a private citizen,” the complaint said. “She may even proselytize in her private life or teach Sunday school, and so forth. However, it violates a vital constitutional principle for a sitting judge to promote personal religious beliefs while acting in her official capacity.”
Kemp’s office declined to comment on the complaint. Dallas County District Attorney John Cruezo told CBS he would “intercede and protect” Kemp against any complaints.
“If anyone complained, I would do everything I could to support the appropriateness of it,” Creuzo said. “I can’t tell you I’ve done the same exact thing, but I have spoken to defendants, have I given them a hug, perhaps, Not given a Bible, that’s not me, but I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about what she did, and I would support that, if anyone tried to file a complaint, I would do my best to intercede and protect her.”
While the non-profit notes they believe Kemp has the right to express her faith as a private citizen, they claim she acted unconstitutionally by bringing her religion into the courtroom while she was representing the U.S. government.
“We, too, believe our criminal justice system needs more compassion from judges and prosecutors. 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 complaint added.
Meanwhile, the Texas-based First Liberty Institute responded to the complaint, saying they believe Kemp’s actions showed compassion, not incompetence.
As the nation’s largest legal organization advocating for religious rights, the Institute slammed the complaint for going against the “rest of the nation” in “celebrating” Kemp’s “compassion and mercy.”
“We should all be thankful the law allows Judge Kemp’s actions and we stand with her and will gladly lead the charge in defending her noble and legal actions,” the group’s general counsel, Hiram Sasser, said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast on Friday.
The Jean family’s attorney, S.Lee Meritt, praised Kemp’s actions on CNN Thursday evening, calling it “a human moment” inspired by Brandt Jean’s moving testimony.
“I think it had everything to do with [Kemp] being a human in that moment. This young man had shown amazing strength of character in extending love and forgiveness to Amber Guyger,” Merritt told CNN host Anderson Cooper. “I think [Kemp] got caught up in the moment.”