Reporters delve into Dallas judge giving Amber Guyger a Bible and urging her to read John 3:16

The judge did what?

I posted last week about the “hug seen around the world” — that of 18-year-old Brandt Jean embracing the ex-police officer convicted of murdering his older brother, Botham Jean.

But I acknowledged surprise about the other stunning development in that Dallas courtroom.

I wrote:

I wonder if there’ll be a letter in the mail soon from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. And honestly, I’d love to hear from legal and constitutional experts on that exchange. It’s fascinating to me.

That letter came quickly, and so did a number of news stories delving into whether what the judge did was appropriate.

Before I get to those stories, I’ll jump ahead and note that The Associated Press has a must-read interview with the judge herself that was published today:

My biggest takeaway from the AP story: The judge’s actions didn’t come in a vacuum. As Judge Tammy Kemp explains it, she opened up about her Christianity and gave Amber Guyger a Bible only when the convicted murderer herself discussed questions of faith and forgiveness.

From AP:

In her first interview since the jury convicted Guyger of murder last week, Kemp said she felt her actions were appropriate since the trial was over and the former officer told her she didn’t know how to begin seeking God’s forgiveness.

“She asked me if I thought that God could forgive her and I said, ‘Yes, God can forgive you and has,’” Kemp told The Associated Press.

“If she wanted to start with the Bible, I didn’t want her to go back to the jail and to sink into doubt and self-pity and become bitter,” she said. “Because she still has a lot of life ahead of her following her sentence and I would hope that she could live it purposefully.”

Among my major questions that I hoped news coverage would address: Where does the judge’s legal responsibility to be impartial end? Similarly, where does her personal religious freedom to share her faith begin? And finally, it is possible for that line to be drawn in the courtroom with Kemp still in her judicial robe?

The stories I read varied in how adequately they handled my specific questions. I found myself frustrated that some reports would start with the legal or constitutional issue and then quickly drift into race relations and unrelated matters.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram — like other news organizations — used the FFRF’s complaint to the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct as the news peg for its coverage under the headline “Amber Guyger’s judge gave her a Bible and hugged her. Why some say she shouldn’t have.”

The letter said Kemp’s actions were “inappropriate,” “overstepped judicial authority” and “unconstitutional.” Links to video showing the encounter were also included.

Calls seeking comment from Kemp’s office and from the state’s judicial conduct commission were not immediately returned.

Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said they do not contact the people about whom they complain to judicial boards because of the adversarial nature of the communication.

“It’s very clear what happened and there’s no doubt that what the judge did crossed the line,” Seidel said. “This was always going to go to the commission.”

From there, the Star-Telegram quotes sources from social media (which hints at the lack of attention devoted to interviewing actual church-and-state experts).

The Dallas Morning News’ story — headlined “Was it right for the judge in the Amber Guyger case to talk religion and give her a Bible?” — is a little better.

I like that the Dallas newspaper quotes local church leaders — pro and con — about Kemp, but the story takes too long to get to a legal group that works on the opposite side of the FFRF:

The First Liberty Institute, a Plano-based nonprofit that defends religious liberty, said Kemp is being unfairly criticized.

"FFRF is protesting Judge Kemp rather than joining the rest of the nation celebrating the compassion and mercy Judge Kemp demonstrated," Hiram Sasser, its general counsel, said in a statement. "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."

So often, news stories that quote the FFRF don’t bother to include a source such as the First Liberty Institute, so kudos to the Morning News for that. Still, I wish the paper had elaborated on what specifically Sasser claims the law allows Kemp to do. His defense of Kemp’s action is too vague, in other words.

Later, there is a bit more from Sasser:

Sasser, of the First Liberty Institute, told The Dallas Morning News that the state judicial commission "could decide to go crazy and attack this judge for that." But he added that he can't imagine it will.

The judicial commission could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Sasser said he would not have a problem if a Muslim judge handed a copy of the Quran to a criminal defendant in court.

"I would defend any judge handing any holy text to anybody in an effort to help them be a better person," he said.

It is an interesting question.

After my last post, devoted GetReligion reader Ray Ingles commented:

I can't help but suspect the coverage would have been different if the judge had been Muslim and handed Guyger a Koran...

I do think Ingles raises a legitimate question there.

Religion News Service also covered the story, quoting the FFRF and the First Liberty Institute as well as Americans United for Separation of Church of State.

RNS notes:

Footage from a Law & Crime Network video, whose link FFRF included in its complaint, shows Kemp crossing the courtroom, Bible in hand, to where Guyger was seated.

“This is the one I use every day,” she can be heard saying. “This is your job for the next month. You read right here: John 3:16. And this is where you start, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever …’ You stop at ‘whosoever’ and say, ‘Amber.’”

Again, I would have welcomed a little more exploration of the actual constitutional and church-and-state questions at issue.

Finally, the New York Times wrote about the issue under the headline “Amber Guyger’s Judge Gave Her a Bible and a Hug. Did That Cross a Line?“

The Times quotes a couple of legal sources, including this one:

Amanda Frost, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said the judge’s decision to hug Ms. Guyger was not too far removed from judges who tell defendants that they regret being forced by the law to hand down a certain sentence or who encourage them to reconsider their paths.

“Impartiality is what matters,” Professor Frost said. “If the judge shows it throughout the trial and then shows some compassion to the defendant afterward, I don’t have a problem with that.”

The Bible, on the other hand, was “questionable,” Professor Frost said. 

In the Guyger case, it was a panel of 12 jurors — not Judge Kemp — who weighed testimony and decided upon the former officer’s fate. But it was Judge Kemp’s job to oversee the trial, make legal decisions and maintain control over the courtroom.

I wonder if Frost’s position would change based on the judge’s statement that Guyger asked about the Bible.

Later, the Times quotes another expert:

Deborah Rhode, an expert in legal ethics and the director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School, said she believed that Judge Kemp’s behavior stayed within ethical bounds, especially because it came after the sentencing had ended.

“All the judge did is express some bonds of common humanity, and I don’t think we should be punishing judges for that,” she said. “If anything, our legal system has suffered from an absence of adequate compassion.”

The legal experts cited by the Times are helpful. I just wish — as I said in relation to some of the other coverage — that the reporting had included more insight from church-and-state authorities. I don’t know that any of the stories I saw tackled head-on the question of what right the judge has to express her personal religious faith after a trial.

Pool photo by Tom Fox, The Dallas Morning News

Please respect our Commenting Policy