This week’s murder conviction of Amber Guyger for shooting and killing Botham Jean in his own home elicited a number of reactions. In many cases, people were relieved and/or amazed that justice appeared to have been served. But that was before the disgraced former cop was only sentenced to a single decade in prison for taking the young, promising life of an upstanding and innocent individual.
Prior to Guyger being told her fate, Jean’s brother asked while testifying during the sentencing phase if he could hug the former Dallas police officer. Later, after the sentence was read, Judge Tammy Kemp, who was widely praised for her handling of the murder trial, also embraced the convicted murderer in court.
The two acts of apparent selflessness made one obvious thing became glaringly more obvious: Black forgiveness, for better or for worse, is a fragile and complex topic. The logic behind it is both inexplicable as well as easy to understand, making the topic all the more confounding whenever it does and also does not happen.
We know that truth to be self-evident – and continue to see it – with the Virginia blackface scandal that has seen Gov. Ralph Northam emerge as a hero for Black people nearly a year after he admitted to wearing blackface in college. Black folks instantly rallied around him and showered him with forgiveness.
On the flip side, though, Northam’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who is Black, was simultaneously branded as a rapist over sex crime allegations that he denied, have not been proven and didn’t compel any criminal action from prosecutors investigating the claims. To date, no Black identifying groups have rallied around Fairfax the way others have around Northam, who admitted to his digression.
That is to say nothing about the family and friends of victims in the Charleston church massacre instantly offering up their forgiveness of Dylann Roof, the avowed white supremacist who said he wanted to start a race war by executing nine parishioners in a historic African American house of worship before cops peacefully took the admittedly racist mass killer into custody.
In that same vein, there were at least three instances of Black forgiveness on prominent and physical display during Amber Guyger’s murder trial, and they all came after her guilty verdict. It started with a bailiff, who is a Black woman, being caught on camera stroking Guyger’s hair in court shortly after Kemp read the verdict. The moment went viral because of the startling imagery of an officer of the court showing preferential treatment to not just an accused criminal, but a convicted murderer of an unarmed, innocent Black man in his own home.
The next day, after Guyger was given her sentence, Kemp emerged from her chambers and presented Guyger with her bible before pulling her in for an emotional embrace in an instance that will likely never be duplicated with a Black defendant, let alone a Black convicted murderer. (To be sure, Texas Rangers David Armstrong’s claim that he didn’t think Guyger committed a crime was not Black forgiveness — that was simply the Blue Wall of Silence talking.)
But chances are those same reactions wouldn’t have happened if Guyger was found not guilty, even though those forgiving souls made it seem as though they didn’t want her to go to jail at all.
The argument that Black folks pushing for criminal justice reform should be encouraged by Guyger’s non-excessive sentence is both astute and misguided. Obviously, all guilty defendants regardless of race would like to be the beneficiaries of appropriate prison sentences that take circumstance into consideration – like Guyger’s sentence – but far too often that simply just not has been the case. If this practice was common across the board instead of selectively (and by selectively I mean only for white people only), that would be one thing.
But time after time we see Black folks forgiving the vilest of offenses and literally receiving nothing tangible in return. You can’t put a value on the peace of mind that those offering forgiveness are likely aiming for, but that same forgiveness doesn’t seem to be balancing the scales of justice for Black folks.
When the shoe is on the other foot, Black people rarely if ever get that same forgiveness. (See the Exonerated Five for more on that.) In fact, Guyger’s lawyers portrayed Jean, 26, as a large Black man whose imposing presence (in his own home) gave the disgraced former cop reason to shoot him. Guyger’s lawyers tried to criminalize Jean in death over his marijuana habit. They argued he rushed at Guyger, forcing her to defend herself from him even though she technically illegally broke and entered into Jean’s apartment. Guyger herself testified that she thought Jean was going to kill her. The prosecution proved that all of those claims were farces, at best. Considering that, it was unclear how any of that behavior was worthy of forgiveness.
During sentencing, the prosecution showed the court numerous instances of Guyger telling racist “jokes,” including one that blasphemed the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and another that even referred to herself as racist. Those text messages and social media posts were not allowed to be shown to the jury during the trial portion of the case and Guyger was still – STILL – found unanimously guilty of murder after fewer than 24 hours of deliberation.
As witnesses testified prior to sentencing, neither Amber Guyger’s mother nor her sister ever offered up an apology to Jean’s family.
The swiftness of that verdict seemed to reflect the undoubted severity of her crime. However, the sentencing didn’t. Whether that was because of the various instances of Black forgiveness that peppered this case, no one can truly say. What can be said, though, is that the justice of a guilty verdict and the apparent miscarriage of justice with Guyger’s sentencing must be reconciled somehow.
Of course, forgiving is morally the right thing. But what about the morals of the person who is being forgiven? At what point does that come into consideration, if ever?
While those questions may not ever have a definite answer, what is certain is that the law is routinely applied unequally along racial lines. The sooner the systemic racism in the criminal justice system is addressed, the sooner forgiveness for killing an unarmed Black man (again, in his own home, no less) will be understandable. But until then, it’ll always be a tough sell, at least for this writer.