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 told CNN 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.”
Kemp also clarified that Guyger asked her for an embrace, not the other way around.
When the trial ended, the judge hugged every member of Jean’s family who was in the courtroom. After that, “she asked me for a hug,” Kemp said.
The judge recalled telling her: “‘Ms. 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 a purpose?’ And I said, ‘I know it can.’ ”
Shock over the Bible exchange
Kemp said Guyger asked another question about her future: “Do you think God will forgive me?”
Kemp told her yes. But Guyger sounded skeptical.
“Well I don’t even have a Bible. I don’t know where to begin,” Guyger said, according to Kemp.
“And that’s when I went to retrieve my Bible and gave it to her,” Kemp said.
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.”
But Kemp stands by her actions, especially because they happened after the trial ended.
“Everyone has a right to their opinion. All those things that transpired are not a part of the official trial proceedings,” she said. “I don’t think I did anything wrong or inappropriate.”
‘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.
In her interview with CNN, 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 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 told CNN. “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.”
‘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.'”
The judge 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.”
Kemp said being a judge and being compassionate aren’t mutually exclusive.
“I think my role is to do justice,” she said. “And extending compassion to someone? If that’s not a part of justice, I don’t know what is.”
‘I don’t understand the criticism’
Kemp is well aware of the heat she’s getting for appearing sympathetic to a convicted murderer.
“I don’t understand the criticism,” Kemp said. “People are talking every day about reforming the criminal justice system — to start looking at people as not just criminals, but persons.”
She credits the murder victim’s brother for helping people in the courtroom understand that.
“Part of the reformation of the criminal justice system should include the restoration of the person,” she said. “And I think Brandt Jean started us down the road on the restoration of Amber Guyger.”
Of course, not all the responses have been critical. Kemp has been inundated with emails, cards and even Bibles from well-wishers praising her after the Guyger trial.
She keeps those cards and Bibles, along with printouts of those positive emails, on the desk in her office.
Why Guyger and Kemp will meet again in 10 years
Before she went to prison, Guyger made a promise to the judge.
“She did tell me she’d bring my Bible back in 10 years,” Kemp said.
Kemp said she hadn’t thought about what would happen if Guyger sought more guidance from her after finishing her 10-year sentence. But the judge said she’d be open to speaking with her.
“I had a defendant come in about two weeks before Amber Guyger’s trial started. … He came and said, ‘Judge, do you remember (me)? You sent me to prison!'” Kemp said with a laugh.
“He said, ‘… You told me that when I got out, if I needed help getting a job, you would help me.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I remember.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m out now!'”
The judge chatted with him and gave him a list of “felon-friendly employers.” Kemp said she’d much rather see a defendant return for job help than “trying to be creative in the streets.”
“It’s not uncommon for defendants to come back,” Kemp said. “If Ms. Guyger wanted to reach out to me, I would certainly not refuse her.”