A courtroom, in the course of a murder trial, is a confined space filled with people cast in specific roles: defendant; attorneys on both sides practicing their profession; jury members charged with listening to testimony and preparing to evaluate it later in group discussion; the judge, constantly on call to ensure the trial conforms to legal protocol; witnesses filing through for interrogation; the bailiff, court reporter, members of the press, and the spectators, frequently including relatives of the defendant and the victim, who were personally impacted by the crime. It’s all very structured.
Except that these are human beings, packed together, sharing an intense experience, with personal or professional stakes in the proceedings and their outcome. They have histories, personalities and beliefs. The legal framework, trying to deliver justice, attempts to minimize or exclude those histories, personalities and beliefs, but in a fraught proceeding like a murder trial they will emerge, perhaps explosively, perhaps cathartically.
When that happens, the question becomes whether it taints our pursuit of justice, in the immediate criminal case and beyond.
In a Dallas courtroom last week, a jury pronounced a guilty verdict on a 31-year-old white, female police officer who had come home from work, entered an apartment she thought was hers, then shot the black man she found inside, believing he was an intruder. It was, in fact, his apartment.
One would think that the uncontested facts of the case against the officer, Amber Guyger, would have precluded any other verdict: it was her error that led her to the wrong apartment (hers was one floor below); the victim, Botham Jean, was eating ice cream, and there was no evidence that he made the slightest threat toward Guyger; she didn’t try to detain him while she summoned help, and she didn’t shoot to wound him. She shot him dead.
But to Dallas’ black residents, and black people elsewhere who were following the trial, the verdict seemed like a breakthrough.
“This is a huge victory,” said an attorney for the victim’s family, “not only for the family of Botham Jean, but ... for black people in America. It’s a signal that the tide is going to change (and) police officers are going to be held accountable for their actions.”
It’s revealing about the black American experience that they could have imagined any other verdict in this case. But of course they could.
It was at the sentencing, the following day, that the human, emotional element erupted. Jean came from a deeply religious Caribbean family. His brother, Brandt Jean, testifying in the sentencing phase, concluded by urging Guyger to turn her life over to Christ, telling her he loved her “as a person,” and asking the judge for permission to hug her. The judge, a black woman, allowed it; she and many other spectators reportedly were emotional at the sight.
For many, though, the surprisingly lenient sentence that followed — 10 years in prison, with parole possible in five — combined with Brandt Jean’s extreme forgiveness, smacked, once more, of white privilege, and of people, even black people, feeling compelled to console a distraught white woman — a role that hearkens back to slavery.
Reactions, positive and negative, were further intensified when, after the proceedings were adjourned, the judge, Tammy Kemp, came off the bench, retrieved a Bible from her chambers, and returned to the courtroom, where she also hugged Guyger and gave her the Bible, with its pages open to John 3:16.
“This is where you start,” the judge told her.
“‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ This will strengthen you,” she said. (Kemp’s comments were recorded by a courtroom news channel.)
The trial had already been gaveled to a close. Judge Kemp wasn’t preaching from the bench. Yet it was, by implication, still her courtroom, and if she didn’t abuse her authority by imposing a religious viewpoint in a public, taxpayer-financed setting, she came dangerously close.
Certainly she meant well. These were, after all, people acting human, in the best sense of the word, with love, compassion, fellow-feeling and generosity. Their personae (judge, defendant, witness) had melted away.
Yet an uneasiness lingers. Did the system, in the aggregate, favor a white defendant even while it found her guilty of murder? Would listeners have been softened, as they reportedly were, if the judge had quoted text from a different religion?
This case, which was so celebrated at the verdict stage, left observers everywhere deeply in doubt a day later.