Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who is white, was recently convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the 2018 murder of an unarmed black man, Botham Shem Jean. This was one of the most bizarre high-profile cases we’ve heard recently involving a police officer shooting an unarmed black male.
According to Guyger and her defense team, she was exhausted after a long shift and mistakenly walked into the wrong apartment, thinking it was hers. She assumed Jean was an intruder and impulsively shot him in self-defense.
The jury reached the conclusion, as would most reasonable people, that Guyger’s explanation belied reality. The realization that Guyger was in the wrong domicile should have occurred prior to shooting the defenseless Jean, who at the time was sitting in his apartment eating ice cream.
That the jury found Guyger guilty of an unfathomable absurdity is not surprising. It was, however, the events during the sentencing phase of the trial that placed an exclamation point on this bizarre escapade.
In a stunning violation of courtroom decorum, Judge Tammy Kemp allowed the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, to hug Guyger, after professing from the witness stand that he has forgiven her for committing a gruesome and life-altering act.
By her own admission, Kemp was aware that she was violating the policy of the sheriff’s office, which prohibits touching a defendant. But in an unprecedented act, Kemp hugged the victim’s mother. She followed up by hugging Guyger and gave her a Bible, all while in open court.
Kemp is clearly the topic of the first chapter in the newly revised book: “What Judges Should Not Do in the Courtroom!”
There’s a plethora of head-scratching factors to consider. How does someone walk into the wrong apartment, albeit one floor above hers, pull a gun and murder someone guilty of sitting on his sofa eating ice cream?
This question fits neatly into an ongoing narrative about race that keeps America mired in an arrested development.
There was also the sentence of 10 years, which to the casual observer as well as the committed activist appears, in the best-case scenario, generous. But as much as those desiring a harsher penalty wish to view the lenient sentence through the prism of race, that perspective is hampered by the fact that Judge Kemp is African American.
In this twist of tragic absurdity there remains the inexplicable behavior of Kemp, who felt compelled to put aside jurisprudence in lieu of her understanding of theology.
Kemp said in an interview that she told Guyger, “Mr. Jean has forgiven you. Please forgive yourself, so you can have a purposeful life. And she asked me, ‘Do you think my life can still have purpose?’ And I said, ‘I know it can.’”
Kemp then proceeded to hand Guyger a Bible, highlighting the passage John 3:16 as a point of departure.
As curious and unprofessional one may have found Kemp’s behavior, it was that of Brandt Jean that seemingly caused the most uproar.
How could someone forgive an individual so quickly who had taken the life of his brother in a heinous and absurd manner?
Questions circled around the court of public opinion, ranging from praise to condemnation. Although many fell short of outright criticism of Brandt Jean, they found it incomprehensible that he could forgive Guyger. Moreover, the unprecedented act of publicly requesting that Kemp be allowed to hug Guyger felt to many as beyond the parameters of decency.
I suspect the inability to understand Jean’s actions is tied directly to the stilted inflexible definition they hold for forgiveness.
If the definition of forgiveness stops at the water’s edge of ceasing to hold resentment toward another, Jean’s actions might be difficult to grasp.
Forgiveness is one of the most selfish and courageous acts we can perform. It is selfish because its primary focus is one’s own liberation. It places less emphasis on the perpetrator’s actions, where the majority of our contemporary understanding of forgiveness re-sides.
Jean’s act of forgiveness was an act of self-determination to be free of the absurdity that Guyger had unexpectedly brought to his life.
What makes forgiveness so difficult is its impulses are often accompanied with the certainty of being right. Having right on our side can organically create an arrogance that can ultimately render us victims of our own pain.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many applied a trite understanding of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s notion of forgiveness. They saw it as a weak, milquetoast response to the barbarism of Jim Crow segregation.
There are no easy answers to deal with the aftermath of absurdity. One can either learn to co-exist with it or free oneself.
Jean appears to courageously choose the latter.