Judges don’t usually hug convicted murderers in the courtroom or hand them Bibles before sending them off to prison.
That is what made Judge Tammy Kemp’s actions so extraordinary in the closing moments of the trial of a white former Dallas police officer who fatally shot her black neighbor.
The tearful embrace before Amber Guyger was taken away to serve 10 years touched off a debate over whether Kemp — a black former prosecutor who fasted and prayed before deciding to run for judge in 2014 — demonstrated admirable compassion or crossed an ethical line. One group asked for a judicial misconduct investigation.
Activists also questioned whether a black defendant would have received the same treatment, adding a final layer of anger to a high-profile case that touched on issues of race.
“It’s just her Christian nature,” said former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who was once Kemp’s boss and in 2006 became the first black elected district attorney in Texas history. Kemp, he said, would pray when their office tackled complex cases.
“You’re having people of color that have the opportunity to make judges now,” Watkins said. “Their life experience and their religious points of view are different than what we’ve seen in the past. That’s just the evolution of our judicial system.”
In September 2018, Guyger lived one floor below Botham Jean and said she entered his apartment thinking it was hers. Mistaking him for a burglar, she drew her gun and fired. The judge also hugged members of Jean’s family and allowed Jean’s younger brother to hug Guyger.
But some called Kemp’s actions a step backward. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular Wisconsin-based group that routinely files lawsuits challenging religious displays in government, accused her of proselytizing from the bench.
The group filed a complaint Thursday with a Texas state agency that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct. At the heart of the protest was Kemp giving a Bible — one of her own — to Guyger and recommending a verse. Guyger had already been sentenced, and the jury had been dismissed.
“You can have mine. I have three or four more at home,” Kemp said to Guyger. “This is your job for the next month. Right here, John 3:16.”
Guyger then rose from the defense table to embrace the black-robed judge. Kemp appeared to hesitate for a moment, then wrapped her arms around the fired police officer.
As attorneys and sheriff’s deputies looked on, Kemp gently patted Guyger on the back with one hand and appeared to whisper in her ear. The two women held each other for 10 seconds. When they broke apart, a man in a suit standing near Guyger could be seen wiping away tears.
“Delivering Bibles and personally witnessing as a judge is an egregious abuse of power,” the foundation wrote in a letter to Texas officials. Kemp “transmitted her personal religious beliefs as a state official in an official proceeding of the gravest nature.”
Jacqueline Habersham, interim executive director of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said confidentiality rules bar her from discussing any pending complaint or investigation.
Kemp did not respond to requests for an interview Thursday and has not spoken publicly since the trial ended.
Kemp took over the 204th District Court after running as a Democrat in her first bid for office in 2014. In a campaign ad in a local magazine called I Messenger, Kemp criticized her opponent as brash and vowed that anyone who came through her courtroom, defendants and victims, would get respect.
She also pointed to God: “As a woman of faith with strong Christian values, my husband and I fasted and prayed about my decision to run.”
Legal experts said it is reasonable to watch Kemp’s actions and raise concerns about any indiscretion. But since the trial was over and the jury was dismissed, they said the propriety of Kemp’s conduct isn’t clear-cut.
“We want our judges to be human and to show their humanity,” said Renee Knake, a law professor at the University of Houston and expert in judicial ethics. “That’s why our cases are decided by human beings and not machines.”