An unprecedented and moving moment occurred in a courtroom, coming from an unlikely source…
Written by Richard Conroy
In the criminal justice system, judges and juries alike are not only empowered, but also entrusted with making fair, rational, and impartial decisions based on application of the law to the facts at hand in criminal and civil cases. Critics will rightly argue, that what clearly should be an unbiased and secular assessment of facts and arguments, can often become tainted and prejudicial when religion, faith, or spirituality are brought into the courtroom.
Our US system of justice makes clear the separation of church and state—as established by the Constitution. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment provides a clear governmental prohibition against authorizing or forming a religion. Case law provides a three-prong litmus test surrounding government conduct toward religion establishment. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) requires government to limit excessive embroilment between church and state. Government assistance toward religion can neither promote nor inhibit the same and finally, the purpose of any government assistance must remain secular in scope.
Defendants are entitled to fair and impartial trials judges or juries of their peers. Post-trial sentencing procedures also call for the exact same fairness and impartiality. However, after a jury or a judge has “spoken,” is it possible for religion or God to enter the courtroom through a side door and be present in the form of victim impact statements?
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Former Dallas, TX police officer Amber Guyger was convicted on October 2, 2019 in state court of murder for shooting Botham Jean while off-duty, while mistakenly thinking she had entered her own apartment after working a 13 ½ hour shift. The September 2018 shooting exacerbated nationwide discussions surrounding police use of force, police training, racial sensitivity, and more. The conviction was reached after six hours of deliberation. In the penalty phase, the same jury reached their decision of a 10-year sentence in less than ninety minutes.
Prior to releasing the jury, the presiding judge allowed for victim impact statements—with only two rules—no threats and no profanity. There was only one statement. It appeared to many in the courtroom that a side door had opened and someone was speaking through the voice of the victim’s younger brother now that the facts and arguments had been made and a verdict and sentence rendered. Separation of church and state no longer seemed important or relevant. The victim’s 18 year-old brother Brandt Jean spoke the following:
“If you truly are sorry, I can speak for myself, I forgive and I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. And I don’t think anyone can say it, again I’m speaking for myself… but I love you just like anyone else. And I’m not gonna say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did but I presently want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. And the best would be to give your life to Christ. I’m not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do. Again, I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you. I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please? Please?”
In an unprecedented courtroom move, the presiding judge Tammy Kemp allowed a long courtroom embrace and private discussion between the two. This moment included a further surprise when the judge left the courtroom, returning with her own personal bible. She gave the bible to Ms. Guyger along with a hug followed by a private personal discussion about scripture and forgiveness.
Judge Tammy Kemp steps off the bench, hands Amber Guyger her personal bible and tells her to read and live John 3:16, then hugs Guyger.
Watch live: https://t.co/86S3jPDqCg#AmberGuygerTrial pic.twitter.com/U1oGEQW7I5
— NBC DFW (@NBCDFW) October 2, 2019
Yes, despite what many believe or support, God and religion are allowed in a courtroom after the secular and unbiased rendition of facts and arguments are finished. Once conviction and sentencing has taken place, victim impact statements can be a valuable and effective tool when it comes to love, faith, and strength—especially for families and for communities that need to heal.
"I love you like anyone else."
— ABC News (@ABC) October 3, 2019
Richard Conroy, PhD has served as a Director of Police at the university level, an Assistant Chief of Police at the municipal level, and a Special Agent in Charge at the state level. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a life-member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Dr. Conroy holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Dallas Baptist University where he also serves as an assistant professor of criminal justice.