Moments after Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday, Judge Tammy Kemp hugged the former police officer and handed over her personal Bible.
"This will strengthen you," Kemp could be overheard telling Guyger. "You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith."
Now, Kemp is drawing fire for what some are calling an inappropriate gesture. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter on Thursday to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in Austin accusing Kemp of "proselytizing in her official capacity."
"Here, compassion crossed the line into coercion. And there can be few relationships more coercive than a sentencing judge in a criminal trial and a citizen accused and convicted of a crime," the letter reads.
The judge's office did not return a request for comment.
Kemp has otherwise been praised for her deft handling of a controversial case that will almost certainly go to appeal. She refused to allow testimony from the state's lead investigator, Texas Ranger David Armstrong, who said he didn't think Guyger had committed a crime. Later, she told the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine during their deliberations, another move that commenters have said may eliminate potential avenues for appeal.
The foundation, which has more than 1,300 members in Texas, made headlines last year when a Texas court ruled that Gov. Greg Abbott had violated its free speech rights by tearing down its display at the state capitol. The group had obtained a permit to install the tongue-in-cheek display celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights in response to a more traditional nativity scene.
The governor tore it down three days later. That case is now in appeal.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, also criticized Kemp for the emotional display in which she descended from the bench to hug Guyger following her sentencing.
A judge is not a an average citizen. She is not the victim. She is not the prosecution (technically “the people”). She must, especially in a case that arouses passion and conflict like this one, stand for impartial justice. She may speak words from the bench. This is too much.— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) October 3, 2019
"When are blk ppl, in the wrong and in the vice, granted this grace? When are *innocent* blk ppl granted this grace?" wondered New York Times columnist Charles Blow on Twitter.
There's also been heated debate about the appropriateness of the hug on a closed Facebook page for Texas attorneys, according to Jonathan Smaby, the executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics.
"It's certainly unusual," he said about the situation.
It was the second hug given to Guyger in the courtroom that day, the first coming from Jean's younger brother, Brandt, who stunned the courtroom by forgiving Guyger and then repeatedly asking to hug her. Kemp approved the request, fighting back tears.
"I love you as a person, and I don't wish anything bad on you," he told Guyger.
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