The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (“FFRF”) has filed a complaint against the Dallas, Texas district court judge who sentenced now-fired police officer Amber Guyger to ten years in prison after a jury convicted Guyger of murdering Botham Jean. Jean was sitting in his apartment eating ice cream unarmed when Guyger, off duty but still in uniform, entered and shot him. Guyger testified she thought she was entering her own apartment, that the door was slightly ajar, and that she feared Jean was an intruder who would kill her.
The Law&Crime Network and LawAndCrime.com carried the trial and the sentencing hearing live. During victim impact statements, the victim’s brother asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could hug the defendant. The judge gave him permission to do so; the hug (seen here) went viral and brought Judge Kemp to tears. After the formal sentencing proceeding wrapped up, cameras showed Judge Kemp hugging the victim’s family in the gallery.
Later, the judge reappeared in the courtroom and presented Guyger with a Christian Bible. Law&Crime‘s video of the judge is available in the player above. In the exchange — which you can hear for yourself — the judge presented Guyger with one of her own personal Bibles and said, “this is your job for the next month.” The judge then went on to instruct Guyger to read John 3:16. The judge began reading the passage to Guyger before the camera operators cut the sound. (The camera at the trial was a pool camera shared by all news organizations in attendance; it was neither owned by nor manned by Law&Crime.) However, the video continued without sound, and it ultimately showed the judge hugging Guyger for approximately sixteen seconds. The two then parted ways. Guyger left the room at the direction of law enforcement officers with the judge’s Bible held to her chest.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation directly cited Law&Crime‘s video of the encounter in its complaint.
“[Judge] Kemp appears to have generally handled a difficult and widely publicized trial with grace and aplomb,” the Foundation said in a press release. “[H]er decision to preach the bible to a criminal defendant was a serious First Amendment violation and signaled to everyone watching that she is partial to Christian notions of forgiveness.”
“We believe that our criminal justice system needs more compassion from judges and prosecutors, but here compassion crossed the line into coercion,” said FFRF co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.
The FFRF letter to the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct further argues:
Judge Kemp is free to attend church as a private citizen. 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. She was in a government courtroom, dressed in a judicial robe, with all of the imprimatur of the state, including armed law enforcement officers, preaching to someone who was quite literally a captive audience, and even instructing her on which bible verses to read! The judicial office, title, trappings, and power belong to ‘We the People,’ not to the office’s temporary occupant. Delivering bibles and personally witnessing as a judge is an egregious abuse of power.
Ultimately, the FFRF accuses Judge Kemp of violating four canons of the state’s code of judicial conduct and asks the oversight body which governs judges to “take all appropriate steps to ensure no future misconduct.” In a footnote, the FFRF complaint even goes so far as to accuse the judge of using a translation of the Bible which is particular to “evangelicals,” saying that the translation chosen would be “coercive” to someone who may, hypothetically, be of another denomination, such as “Catholic or Baptist.”
The FFRF raised no complaint about the hug offered to the defendant from the vicitm’s brother: “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 letter to the state judicial commission said.
The FFRF joined the Law&Crime Network on Friday to discuss its complaint. Watch the discussion with New York City Public Defender and Law&Crime Host Brian Buckmire in the player below:
The question of whether the judge’s conduct crossed an ethical line has been a topic of debate for two days on the Law&Crime Network’s Daily Debrief. Additionally, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, himself a former judge, told this writer in an interview broadcast Thursday that he had slightly mixed reactions to the judge’s conduct in giving Guyger her Bible.
“Personally, having spent 22 years as a judge, I would not have done that,” Creuzot said. “But, on the other hand, I respect the right of this judge to do it and to communicate in that manner. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it; I don’t think there’s anything unconstitutional about it; I don’t think there’s anything unethical about it; and I would support this judge if anyone field a complaint against her. I would seek to intervene to support her,” he said in an extended interview on the Law&Crime Network. Creuzot’s comments were made before the FFRF made public its complaint.
As to the overall scene after sentencing, Creuzot said he was overcome with emotion about what he saw. “When I was watching it in my office, I, too, had tears in my eyes, as did everyone here in my office,” he said.
Reaction to Judge Kemp’s handling of the case has been overwhelmingly positive on social media, though some did complain about her actions with the Bible.
The Hon. Tammy Kemp is the presiding judge of the 204th District Court in Dallas, Texas.
[Image via screen capture from the Law&Crime Network.]
[Editor’s note: this piece has been updated to include Friday’s interview with the FFRF.]