It was a message of mercy followed by an emotional embrace that took a Dallas courtroom by surprise: the teenage brother of victim Botham Jean telling Amber Guyger, the former police officer convicted in Jean’s murder, that “if you truly are sorry — I know I can speak for myself — I forgive you.”
Brandt Jean’s unexpected request for a hug during his victim impact statement Wednesday, which came after jurors sentenced Guyger to 10 years in prison, was underscored Thursday by his father, Bertrum Jean, who told CNN that he “felt the same way as Brandt.”
“I wouldn’t want to see her rot in hell. I wouldn’t want to see her rot in prison,” Bertrum Jean said of Guyger, adding that he expected the sentence — far short of the maximum of life in prison — “could have been a little more.”
But Botham Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, told NBC News that she isn’t sure she could have reacted the same way her youngest son did in that moment, although forgiveness is anchored in the family’s Christian faith.
“I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken with a total relinquishing of responsibility,” she added.
The fraught feelings among members of the Jean family have not been lost on activists and community members, some of whom are voicing outrage that Guyger’s sentence appeared too lenient and concerns that it is once again incumbent on people of color, particularly black Americans, to absolve their perpetrators without the need for meaningful accountability.
Social media posts lauded the moment between Guyger and Brandt Jean as inspiring, including a tweet from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who said it was a “powerful example of Christian love & forgiveness.”
In response to the outpouring on Twitter, Cornell William Brooks, a former president and CEO of the NAACP, wrote that “using the willingness of Black people to forgive as an excuse to further victimize Black people is SINFUL.”
I have preached #forgiveness for 25 years, BUT using the willingness of Black people to forgive as an excuse to further victimize Black people is SINFUL.
— Rev. Cornell William Brooks (@CornellWBrooks) October 2, 2019
The Rev. Michael W. Waters, a Dallas pastor and activist, said Brandt Jean exhibited a “beautiful and personal act of Christian forgiveness.” The moment became even more poignant when the judge in the trial, Tammy Kemp, who is black, followed up by hugging Guyger as well and giving her a Bible.
But Waters is worried that those images are overshadowing what Allison Jean said after Guyger’s sentencing, when she told reporters that the Dallas Police Department must re-evaluate its training of officers and learn to de-escalate volatile situations.
“If Amber Guyger was trained not to shoot in the heart,” Allison Jean said, “my son would be standing here today.”
Guyger, 31, was fired from the Dallas police force in September 2018 in the weeks after she fatally shot Botham Jean, who lived one floor above her in the same apartment complex. Guyger testified that after she got off work, she mistakenly parked on the wrong floor of the complex and, confusing Botham Jean’s apartment with hers, believed he was a burglar.
Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, was unarmed and watching television in his living room when Guyger walked in just before 10 p.m. Guyger said she thought it was her apartment and that she feared for her life when she saw a “large silhouette.”
The Jean family previously raised the question if she would have been slower to shoot if Botham Jean were not black.
A jury on Tuesday found Guyger guilty of murder — a rare conviction in a police-involved shooting. She will be eligible for parole in five years.
Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall acknowledged Wednesday that the case against Guyger and her trial uncovered “disheartening” allegations of tampering and training failures, and that she would launch an internal affairs investigation into what was found.
Waters said he was also disturbed by the revelations of racist and offensive texts and social media posts by Guyger, including ones that mocked Martin Luther King Jr. and seemed to disparage black officers.
“Black forgiveness doesn’t absolve the need for justice and reform,” Waters said. “We understand that racism is rampant in policing throughout the nation.”
The idea of “black forgiveness” became prominent in the wake of the 2015 shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Waters said.
While some victims’ families tearfully told the shooter, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, that they forgave him, other families lamented that their calls for a national conversation on race were met with ambivalence.
Waters, who wrote the forward to a book about forgiveness by a Charleston church shooting family member, said those conversations are still credible today.
“I’m less concerned about the act of forgiveness and I’m more concerned about how these acts of forgiveness have been weaponized to thwart our work for justice in this nation,” he added.
Changa Higgins, the head of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition, which has sought to expand the powers of community oversight of police matters, said the idea of forgiveness on its own “sends the wrong message” when it doesn’t afford the same leniency toward people of color who are incarcerated and caught up in the criminal justice system at higher rates than whites.
A 10-year prison sentence is hard for him to comprehend for murdering an innocent man, he added, when he has friends who are doing longer time for nonviolent drug offenses.
“For those of us who do this work and dedicate our lives to it, granting forgiveness by itself devalues the message that black lives matter,” Higgins said.