DALLAS — Tammy Kemp knew she’d feel the glare of the national spotlight when she presided over the Amber Guyger trial.
What she didn’t expect was the backlash that followed.
It’s been six days since Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her unarmed black neighbor Botham Jean.
And it’s been six days since Kemp, an African-American judge, came under fire for giving Guyger a hug and a Bible following the sentencing.
“I think people are taken aback that I would reach out to Amber Guyger because the act that she committed was so horrific, and the victim was such a good person,” Kemp said in an interview Tuesday.
“But I try to look beyond the horrific act, and see the person behind it, realizing that that person would rejoin our society … It’s my hope that she’ll become a productive member of society.”
Shock over the Bible exchange
Observers in the courtroom heard what the judge told Guyger as she handed the murderer her Bible.
“This is the one I use every day,” Kemp told Guyger.
“This is your job for the next month. It says right here. John 3:16. And this is where you start: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life …’ ”
Critics say Kemp violated the US Constitution’s separation of church and state.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint against the judge and has asked for the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate.
The foundation said Kemp’s “proselytizing actions overstepped judicial authority.”
‘Mom, you’re a meme’
Kemp’s sympathy after the trial contrasted sharply with her stern reaction after Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot violated her gag order by giving a TV interview the night before the trial started.
Kemp sequestered the jury after the gag order violation.
Kemp said she wasn’t fully aware her reaction went viral on the internet until her daughter filled her in.
“One of my daughters sent me a text and told me, ‘Mom, you’re a meme,'” Kemp said.
“For people who know me, they know I don’t have a poker face,” the judge said. “So I was just surprised that my reaction — which was exactly how I was feeling: shocked, stunned, overwhelmed” caused such a stir.
Kemp said she was extremely upset because the court had put so much work into trying to ensure a fair and impartial trial. She also considered a change of venue motion, with so much local media coverage of Guyger’s case before the trial.
“That weighed heavily on my mind — can we get a fair jury here in Dallas County?” Kemp said. “The fact that we had secured a jury, and here we are, on the precipice of beginning (the trial) — and there’s a violation, or an alleged violation of my gag order. I was utterly stunned.”
She almost refused to let Jean’s brother hug Guyger
Kemp wasn’t the only person in the courtroom to surprise Guyger with a hug.
Jean’s brother Brandt told the court that he forgave his brother’s killer and asked Kemp if he could hug Guyger.
The judge said she knew it would violate policy if she allowed Brandt Jean to hug Guyger.
“I really think I was on the brink of saying, ‘That’s not allowed.'” Kemp said. “But the second ‘please’ — and him looking at me — I couldn’t look at him, I couldn’t say no. And so I said yes.”
Brandt Jean’s testimony, forgiveness and hug for his brother’s killer changed the mood of the room, said attorney S. Lee Merritt, who represents the Jean family.
He said that act of kindness may have affected the judge, who later gave Guyger a hug as well.
‘That’s not the first time I’ve broken the rules’
Surprising acts of humanity have happened before in Kemp’s courtroom.
“That’s not the first time I’ve broken the rules,” she said about allowing Brandt Jean to embrace the defendant.
One time, a defendant came into her courtroom on a frigid winter day wearing flip-flops.
“I’m like, ‘Son, why don’t you have on some shoes?’ And you have to be careful because you don’t want to embarrass people,” the judge said.
“Finally, (the defendant) said, ‘Well these are the only shoes I have.'”
Kemp asked what shoe size he wore. “And my bailiff said, ‘Judge, I got a pair at home. I’ll bring them.’ So we asked (the defendant) to come back the next day, and we’d have some shoes for him.”