"If you truly are sorryI know I can speak for myselfI forgive you," said Brandt Jean before joining in a tearful embrace with his brother's convicted murderer, Amber Guyger.
It was a stunning display of mercy following a guilty verdict for the white ex-cop, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison this week for shooting and killing Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black man, after she entered his apartment, mistaking it for her own.
The backlash was stunning as well: not just against Guyger's sentence, but also in response to the compassion granted by Brandt Jean and the judge, Tammy Kemp, who gave Guyger a Bible, words of wisdom, and a hug before sending her on her way to prison.
"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," former NAACP President and ordained minister Cornell Brooks said. Jemele Hill, a staff writer at The Atlantic, took greater issue with Judge Kemp, who is also black. "How Botham Jean's brother chooses to grieve is his business," she tweeted. "He's entitled to that. But this judge choosing to hug this woman is unacceptable."
Echoing their sentiments, activists took to Dallas's streets this week to protest the sentence, which one attendee described as nothing more than a "time-out." Such reactions are understandable considering that black people in America have disproportionately suffered at the hands of the state and institutionalized racism. But the hasty desire to scrub our overly harsh criminal justice system of any vestige of mercywhether it be in the form of a forgiving word or a "lenient" sentenceis essentially an effort to right wrongs with more wrongs.
Racial disparities in sentencing are shrinking, but the pendulum has moved in the wrong direction: Efforts to homogenize punishments with mandatory minimums have only led to more excessive punishments across the board. That includes the less privileged of all races, who were already spending too much time locked away.
Crystal Mason, a black woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for illegally voting, has become a figurehead for the debate. After a jury announced Guyger's sentence, comparisons were immediately drawn between the two women.
It wasn't the first time, however, that Mason landed in the mainstream conversation around issues of race, crime, and sentencing: actress Felicity Huffman's 14-day prison sentence elicited similar outrage. But just because Mason received a ridiculously unjust and excessively penal sentence, does not mean that Guyger, Huffman, and whoever else should, too. As I wrote last month:
To answer in the affirmative is to say our criminal justice system is bad because it penalizes people disproportionately. But that is not, in fact, the primary problem. The problem is that it excessively penalizes so many people at all, generally by criminalizing everything under the sun. Throwing Huffman behind bars and tossing away the key would do nothing to address our unenviable distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Locking Guyger away 20 years, or 30 years, or the rest of her natural life, would not help Mason. It would not bring back Botham Jean. It would likely not even change the way police officers in America interact with the people they are supposed to protect and serve. It would just hurt Guyger.
What's more, Guyger's case is not a great example of police brutality, which is why the jury correctly refused to make an example of her on those grounds. "This case was not like any other case. You can't compare this case to any of those other unarmed officers killing unarmed black men," Juror 21, a black woman, told ABC News. She added that Guyger "showed remorse," and will have to deal with this "for the rest of her life."
That likely won't be enough for those who want retributionnot just for Jean, but for all of the black men and women and boys and girls killed by police officers, as well as those who have been given outrageously long prison sentences. It is possible to ache for them and advocate for them without insisting that, until things change, everyone must suffer as they suffer.
Punishing Guyger in every way imaginable, from a harsher sentence to giving her the cold shoulder during a victim impact statement, was a chance to get vengeance. But hurting her to the maximum extent under the law is not justice. Nor is scolding the people who saw her as a flawed human and chose to show her compassion.