Wednesday had the power to send my community of Dallas into a familiar tailspin of racial animosity. But it did not happen. It struck many as the intervention of God Himself.
As the day began, the jury that had convicted a former Dallas policewoman of murder had the power to send her to jail to die. Many angry voices in Dallas and across America wanted the full 99 years for Amber Guyger, as if that would somehow balance the scales against past perceived injustices.
“This is for Trayvon, this is for Michael Brown,” claimed activist attorneys seeking to wrap the Guyger case in their preferred narrative of race. But as the jury returned a verdict of only 10 years, and the courtroom fell quiet for victim statements, a message of grace and forgiveness overpowered any gathering mood of discord.
Anything short of Guyger’s head on a platter stood the likelihood of sparking disturbing reactions in parts of the community primed for racial revenge. There will still be those who will complain that Guyger will not die of old age in prison, but as the 18-year-old brother of the man she mistakenly killed took the stand, it was easy to wonder whether frustration or even anger might be the reaction to a sentence lighter than what many wanted or expected.
But young Brandt Jean’s first words set the tone that would rule the day.
“I love you just like anyone else,” he began. “I’m not going to hope that you rot and die….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 for you.”
Prosecution testimony had movingly portrayed Botham Jean as a glowing example of a wonderful son, brother and friend. The goal of that testimony was to prod the jury toward harsher punishment. They did not take that bait, and with a merciful sentence still settling over the courtroom audience, Brandt completed a miracle of grace.
“Give your life to Christ,” he said, looking into the eyes of the woman who took his brother’s life. “I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you.”
He then asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could step down from the stand and hug Amber Guyger. After a moment of silent surprise, she agreed, and Brandt strode to a standing Guyger who very nearly ran into his arms.
The power of that moment was a flood of God’s grace, washing away the angry words of any who would complain that justice was not done. Activists said they wanted a maximum sentence as a signal of justice for Botham Jean. But there is no greater honor than to have his very spirit welcomed into that courtroom in the form of a brother choosing forgiveness over hate, grace over bitterness, and God’s teachings over earthly resentments.
The judge herself hugged Jean’s family and then Guyger, who prepared herself to be returned to a jail cell. But the judge did not bring merely consolation; she gave her a Bible, directing her to John 3:16 as evidence of God’s love and direction for her moving forward.
There is no way to adequately describe the force of these moments as they moved through this community. It seemed there were only two possibilities for this day, either a maximum sentence that would smack of a jury’s desire to exact a pound of police flesh not just for this crime but various episodes in the past; or a sentence so light that the streets might fill with anger.
To be sure, ten years was at the low end of punishment at the jury’s disposal. But if Botham Jean’s family and the prosecutors are satisfied with it, angry protests seem unduly out of step with the spirit of the day.
There were a few elements of this tragic story that always stood a chance of unifying the community: our unanimous empathy for Botham Jean’s family, a recognition of the need for some police training revisions, and a wish for a result that could bring healing.
Little did we know that God himself, through His word and His grace, would lead us through the day, speaking through the words of a grieving brother barely an adult.
But as other grownups girded for battle, Brandt Jean showed us how to navigate the hardest of times. Through his pain and the loss of a brother who should be here to guide him through his life, this young man was the instrument of a miracle.
On the road to this trial, it was often observed that no result could bring Botham Jean back. But as the spirit of forgiveness and grace filled the courtroom, his spirit and legacy were on display for all to see and celebrate.
Amber Guyger faces a decade in prison. Botham Jean’s family faces a lifetime of missing him. There is no happy ending here. But there is a reminder of what can happen when we shelve our natural hostilities and frustrations and turn to God, to follow His example of forgiveness and His gift of grace.