Amber Guyger, Botham Jean and the hug heard around the world
Like many who witnessed it, I found Brandt Jean’s courtroom embrace of the 31-year-old blond killer of his brother Botham Jean very moving.
Here’s one thing I know: When you hate somebody, really detest them, it eats you alive.
So part of me understood perfectly why Brandt Jean asked permission to hug his brother’s killer, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, during the penalty phase of her well-publicized trial.
Because after the jury found her guilty of murder, Jean needed to purge the poison from his soul. He also believed that his late brother, slain in his own apartment by a cop coming off a 14-hour shift who’d mistaken his place for hers, would have urged compassion. Described by everybody who knew him as an uncommonly gentle and loving person, Botham Jean had been that rarest of believers: a true Christian.
Like many who witnessed it, I found Brandt Jean’s courtroom embrace of the 31-year-old blond killer very moving. Tears came to my eyes.
Certainly not because she was white, I don’t believe. I had no such reaction when the African American victims of the Charleston church shootings forgave the racist killer Dylan Roof. To hell with Dylan Roof.
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What I do remember thinking was basically this: black people in the South are amazing. Just amazing. There’s no people like them.
I should probably stop right there. No matter what you say about race, somebody’s sure to be offended.
But I’m not running for anything, so here goes.
I’ve often thought that if black Southerners were more like my people, grudge-nurturing Irish Catholics raised from childhood to accept no slight, forgive no injury, and never, ever forget, a city like Charleston would resemble Belfast during “The Troubles” — all terrorist bombings, political assassinations, and neighborhoods divided into armed camps.
The Belfast response to Dylan Roof’s crime would have been to firebomb his neighborhood.
But black people tend to be more generous and forgiving than that. Jemar Tisby, an African American historian, sees it as a necessary defense mechanism. “There has been such a long history of injustice perpetrated against black people in the United States,” he told the Washington Post, “that if we didn’t forgive, we run the risk of being consumed by bitterness.”
I’m sure that’s exactly right.
But back to Amber Guyger and the remarkable family that forgave her.
First, Guyger was undeniably guilty, although the verdict surprised people accustomed to seeing cops walk. Indeed, Jean family attorney Benjamin Crump spoke of the verdict as “historic.” He said, “We hope that it sends the message to the police departments that your officers should be following the policies of de-escalation.”
That strikes me as an exaggeration for two reasons. First, convictions are no longer so rare. According to the Dallas Morning News, Guyger’s the third Dallas County cop convicted of murder in the past two years. Second, the case involved no police brutality. It was more on the order of a tragic blunder. Guyger wasn’t on duty, although she was in uniform.
No histrionics were required to make Botham Jean out to be an innocent victim. He was entirely so, a peaceable fellow sitting at home eating ice cream when a complete stranger walked in the door, yelled, and started shooting.
Fatigued and distracted, Guyger had entered the wrong apartment in the dark — a mistake several defense witnesses said they’d made. Jean had left his door ajar, perhaps seeking fresh air.
Prosecutors probed Guyger’s racial attitudes to little effect. Yes, she’d sent a joking message to a fellow cop about somebody owning a “racist dog,” texting “I hate everything and everyone but y’all,” i.e. fellow cops. There was also an unfunny joke about Martin Luther King still being dead, 50 years after the fact.
This is pretty standard cop humor. Regardless of ethnicity, I tell you what: You do a few years in a Dallas police uniform and see if you come out talking like a liberal arts professor.
During her testimony, Guyger wept and admitted she’d panicked, shooting to kill. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life … I wish he was the one with the gun that killed me.”
Most listeners believed she meant it. The jury sentenced her to 10 years, double the minimum sentence. Jurors thought more time would be unjustly punitive. Cops do hard time inside; friends are hard to find.
Even Judge Tammy Kemp found herself moved by Guyger’s plight. After Brandt Jean’s extraordinary gesture, she offered the distraught murderer her personal Bible, and assured her of God’s love. To persons angered by her unprecedented gesture, she responded, “if you profess religious beliefs and you are going to follow them, I would hope that they not be situational and limited to one race only.”
Jemar Tisby’s response: “I think black people are legitimately upset when we extend grace in the face of clear and blatant injustices, but we’re never extended that same grace in the public mind.”
Amen to both, I say.
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