By Cheryl Smith
Publisher of Texas Metro News/I Messenger Media L.L.C.
I Messenger Media (Texas Metro News/Garland Journal/I Messenger) sat down recently with Judge Tammy Kemp to discuss criticism she has received as a result of her actions following the conclusion of the Amber Guyger murder trial last week.
On Oct. 1, 2019, Ms. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was convicted by a Dallas County jury of murder for fatally shooting 26-year-old Botham Shem Jean, in his apartment at the Southside Flats on Sept. 6, 2018. Ms. Guyger claimed self-defense as she said she thought she was in her apartment and that Mr. Jean was an intruder. Mr. Jean’s apartment, #1478, was located on the fourth floor and Guyger’s apartment, #1378, was located directly beneath his on the third floor.
The jury found her guilty of murder and sentenced Ms. Guyger to serve 10 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. After Judge Kemp read the jury’s punishment verdict, she thanked the jury for their service, released them from the court’s previous restrictions regarding reading or watching coverage or engaging in/consuming social media content about the trial and offered contact information for counseling services should they find themselves in need of assistance following the trial.
The jury exited the courtroom, the trial was over and the court was officially off the record. However, as is customary in any case where there is a victim of a crime, the victim’s family has a right to make a victim impact statement to the defendant before he/she is transported from the courtroom. In this case, Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of Botham Jean, took the witness stand to address Amber Guyger directly and delivered an undoubtedly unexpected, yet powerful message of forgiveness and love to the woman who took his brother’s life.
Then in a stunning turn of events, the victim’s brother asked Judge Kemp if he could “give her a hug.” He pleaded with Judge Kemp, “Please.” There was a brief pause of silence before Judge Kemp responded, “Yes.” Mr. Brandt descended from the witness stand and approached Ms. Guyger, who ran to him and they embraced and whispered to each other for a couple of minutes before releasing from the embrace and returning to their respective seats. Next, Judge Kemp walked over to the Jean Family and after a short conversation, there were embraces.
The next exchange was between Judge Kemp and Ms. Guyger and ended in an unexpected hug; one that not only sent shock waves across the nation but has drawn fire from the African American community as well as a formal complaint filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
I Messenger reached out to Judge Kemp to provide the facts and set the record straight on several issues that were raised during and after the trial.
I Messenger: Explain the difference between a jury trial and a trial before the court.
Judge Kemp: In the State of Texas, a jury trial is when the accused has his or her case argued before a jury of 12 citizens. Jurors are selected by prosecutors (the State) and defense attorneys prior to the trial during the jury selection process. In a jury trial, the defendant has two decisions to make — who will decide guilt/innocence, the judge or a jury, and if convicted, who will decide punishment, again the judge or a jury.
In contrast, a trial before the court or TBC, is when a defendant has his or her case presented to the judge of a specific court and the judge decides both guilt/innocence and any associated punishment for that individual. Both the State and the defense must agree to a trial before the Court. Just to be clear, the State vs. Amber Guyger was a jury trial in which the defendant, Ms. Guyger, decided to have both guilt/innocence and punishment decided by a jury.
I Messenger: One source of contention was your ruling to allow the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine during their deliberation on guilt/innocence. Considering that the law was actually intended for homeowners, like Botham Jean, to protect themselves and their homes against intruders, in this case, like Amber Guyger, why did you allow the Castle Doctrine in as a self-defense theory in the jury’s instructions on deliberation during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial?
Judge Kemp: While I do not comment on my rulings in any case, I would like to take this opportunity to educate people on the Castle Doctrine in general terms.
As it pertains to self-defense and deadly force, the Texas Penal Code states a defendant is entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense if the issue is raised by the evidence, whether that evidence is strong or weak, unimpeached or contradicted, and regardless of what the trial court may think about the credibility of the defense. If you deny a defendant their defense, the case will be reversed and then must be retried.
I Messenger: What went through your mind in those brief seconds immediately after Brandt Jean asked you if he could give Amber Guyger a hug?
Judge Kemp: My first thought was the security risk. I quickly connected non-verbally with the deputies standing post inside the courtroom and made a split decision that Brandt Jean was sincere in his remarks to Ms. Guyger and that neither he nor Ms. Guyger intended any physical harm towards one another and allowed the contact between them to take place, and I knew I was going to have to explain my decision to Sheriff Bro
I Messenger: You have been accused by some media outlets and the court of public opinion, particularly in the African American community, of disrespecting the victim’s family by coming off the bench to hug the woman who murdered Botham Jean and giving her a bible. Let’s set the record straight on the facts and what led up to the exchange and ultimate hug between you and Amber Guyger.
Judge Kemp: Like everyone else in the courtroom after witnessing the moving, emotional moment between Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger, I wiped my eyes, then came off the bench and went directly over to talk to Botham Jean’s family first.
I offered my condolences to Mr. Jean’s parents and shared words of comfort and encouragement with them before asking them if I could hug them, which they agreed to and I hugged each family member, father, mother, grandmother, sister and brother one by one. After I spent time with the victim’s family, I went over to the defense’s table and addressed Ms. Guyger. I told her, ‘Brandt has forgiven you. You have to forgive yourself.’ To which Ms. Guyger responded,
‘Do you think God will forgive me?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Important to note, it was Ms. Guyger who first mentioned anything about religion. Then and only then, did I respond to her faith-based inquiry. Although I am a Christian, because of an individual’s religious freedom rights, I never discuss anything religious during the performance of my duties as a judge unless a victim or defendant mentions it to me first and again only after a trial or plea is officially completed.
I continued, ‘He has a purpose for you.’ She said, ‘You think I can have a purpose for my life?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and she said, ‘I don’t know where to start. I don’t own a bible.’ Her response prompted me to go to my chambers and retrieve the bible I keep in my office. I returned to the courtroom and told Ms. Guyger, ‘You can have this one. I have three or four more at home. This is the one I use at work every day.’ I turned to John 3:16 and read the scripture to her. I told her when you read this and you get to the ‘whosoever,’ you say ‘Amber.’
I told her she needs to read John 3:16 for the next month so it could sink in and then to start with the Gospels. I also told her that the translation that I gave her was difficult for new believers and she probably needed a study bible. I told her, ‘If you like, I will get one for you and get it to your defense team.’ She said, ‘yes’ and told me she would bring my bible back in 10 years. It was at that point, she asked, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ Honestly, I hesitated initially and here’s what ran through my mind in that instant. That Sunday, Sept. 29th, which would have been Botham Jean’s 28th birthday, the sermon I heard at church was, The One is Greater Than the 99, which talked about if you are going to attract the lost, you must show love and compassion. Additionally, I thought about my job responsibilities as it pertains to my faith, and I have a duty to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly. Ms. Guyger asked me a second time for a hug and I agreed. As she was hugging me, she was telling me that I was such a good person and I was fair and good. Contrary to speculation, I was not praying with her.
I Messenger: Have you ever hugged any other defendants in your court following the conclusion of a trial or plea in your court?
Judge Kemp: I have hugged a lot of defendants, but I have never been asked for a hug by a defendant convicted of a violent offense before and I have never hugged one defendant who did not ask me for a hug. On any given day in the 204th District Court, however, I routinely counsel defendants on forgiveness and second chances. As a matter of fact, a lot of the defendants that I have ended up hugging were initially angry with me because I would not just give them their time. Instead, when necessary, I required them to go to treatment and after they completed treatment they would come back and thank me.
I Messenger: Continuing on that note of second chances, tell us about Project Phoenix.
Judge Kemp: In my first year on the bench in 2014, I founded Project Phoenix in partnership with the Dallas AFL-CIO to provide marketable skills through apprenticeships in the various trade industries to first-time, non-violent low-level offenders. Upon successful completion of the program, offenders’ cases are dismissed and later expunged from their records. My primary goal in creating this program was to make sure participants could earn a living wage and have a true second chance.
I Messenger: One of the female bailiffs has also come under fire for what appears as if the bailiff is fixing or caressing Amber Guyger’s hair. What was happening?
Judge Tammy Kemp: The jury returned a verdict of guilty and I held Ms. Guyger’s bond insufficient. At that point, she was in the custody of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office and no longer free to move about. I instructed the Sheriff’s deputies to restrict Ms. Guyger’s movement to the defense workroom, the courtroom and the restroom. Typically, once a defendant has been convicted, they are transported to the county jail to be booked and processed – a process that can take up to three hours. Instead, I asked that they detain her in the courtroom to ensure we did not experience any delays in the trial. What people saw in that moment was actually the bailiff doing a moderate pat down of the defendant and discreetly checking her hair for contraband.
I Messenger: After the trial there were protests and criticism by those who believed 10 years was not enough time for the fatal shooting of Botham Jean. Do you believe the sentence was fair given the testimony in this case?
Judge Kemp: That is a question for the jurors. As with any case, I respect the jury’s verdict. I never question or comment on a jury’s decision.
I Messenger: Could you as the judge, have overturned the jury’s sentence and given the defendant a longer sentence?
Judge Kemp: No, by law I could not overturn the jury’s verdict. Again, once a defendant decides to go before the jury to decide guilt/innocence and punishment, the jury’s verdicts in both phases of a trial are the final decisions.
I Messenger: A photo of your political endorsement from the Dallas Police Association (DPA) Political Action Committee has been circulating on social media and many voiced disapproval of the endorsement. In terms of the timeline, when did you receive the DPA’s endorsement relative to when Mr. Jean was killed?
Judge Kemp: The Dallas Police Association’s Political Action Committee endorsed both my first campaign in 2014 and my campaign for reelection in 2018, just as they endorse multiple judicial candidates in every election cycle. During my last election, DPA announced their endorsement of my campaign for re-election in the fall of 2017. Amber Guyger shot and killed Mr. Botham Jean on September 6, 2018. Obviously, no one could have predicted this horrific tragedy would occur a year later, long after the organization endorsed my campaign.
I Messenger: On Oct. 3, 2019, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission, against you for the now ‘infamous hug.’ Do you believe your actions were inappropriate?
Judge Kemp: Obviously, I do not think it was inappropriate, but I will leave that decision to the Ethics Commission.
I Messenger: On Oct. 4, 2019, you summoned Dallas County Criminal District Attorney John Creuzot to appear before the 204th Judicial District Court for a contempt of court hearing that is scheduled to take place on Oct. 31st. What is the purpose of this hearing and why do you believe it is necessary?
Judge Kemp: On Sept. 23, the very first day of trial, as the attorneys and I were wrapping up preliminary matters outside the presence of the jury, Amber Guyger’s defense team informed the court that our elected DA had appeared in a new television interview alleging that it was in direct violation of the court’s gag order prohibiting both the prosecutors and defense lawyers from speaking publicly about the case and/or trial in any way.
It was determined and confirmed that the DA’s interview on FOX 4 News was not taped the night before the beginning of trial, but in fact had been taped on September 20, 2019, which was three days before the trial was set to begin. Due to the high volume of media coverage on this case, I had put a gag order in place in January of this year for all parties involved in the case. In general, the purpose of a court’s gag order on any case is to prohibit the parties from trying their case in the public.
A contempt of court hearing, also known as a show cause hearing, requires the alleged violator to appear before the court and explain why he/she did not adhere to the court’s order(s). I believe it is necessary in this case, just as it would be with any case, because court orders are meant to be followed, no exceptions. Additionally, with all of the hard work that went into this case on both sides, it was pretty shocking to learn that the order had allegedly been violated, a decision that technically could have resulted in a mistrial before the trial even started, had any of the jurors seen the interview.
However, after I watched the interview, I polled each juror individually and confirmed that none of them had seen it and the trial proceeded accordingly.
I Messenger: What would you like for people to know about the 204th Court?
Judge Kemp: I want people to know that we treat everyone with compassionate accountability in our court. My principles for running were to be accountable to the public, compassionate towards victims and fair to the accused, and we’ve made those principles the bedrock of everything we do in court.
Tammy Kemp is the presiding Judge of the 204th Judicial District Court. There has been a transformation and many successes since she took the bench. Judge Kemp is a native of Wewoka, OK and earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance and a Juris Doctorate degree from OU. After graduating law school, she worked as an Assistant Attorney General and an Assistant Secretary of State for the State of Oklahoma, before relocating to the Dallas area.
She has been practicing law since 1988 and her areas of expertise include criminal, corporate and retirement law. In her previous role of Administrative Chief of the Family Violence and Child Abuse Divisions at the Dallas County District Attorney’s (DA) Office, she supervised 28 attorneys, 21 investigators, and 18 support staff. Her duties included the investigation and prosecution of criminal offenses, including death penalty capital murders.
She is a member of the State Bar of Texas and the State Bar of Oklahoma and has been a member of Concord Church for more than 26 years, where she serves as a Deaconess. A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Judge Kemp is married to a wonderful, supportive husband and they have three amazing children.
This article originally appeared in the Texas Metro News.