Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
At the murder sentencing of ex-Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, the courtroom was moved to tears as one of the brothers of victim Botham Jean, offered her love, forgiveness and an invitation to give her life to Christ.
“I love you just like anyone else,” Brandt Jean told Guyger in his victim-impact statement.
“I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. And the best would be: 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.”
Brandt then asked permission from the judge to give Guyger a hug, who sobbed in his arms, asking forgiveness.
Guyger was convicted of murder for killing Jean, a 26-year-old PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant in September 2018. Jean, who was black, was sitting in his apartment watching television and eating ice cream when Guyger, a white patrol officer coming off a 15-hour shift, entered his apartment, allegedly believing it was her own, and shot and killed him. The incident became a flashpoint of poor relations between black Americans and law enforcement officers as Guyger was not immediately arrested and was initially given a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Prosecutors at trial later revealed Guyger had been sending adulterous text messages to a married police force colleague around the time she entered Botham’s apartment, and had a history of sending racist text messages, including making jokes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
In that fateful moment, the dissolute Guyger took the life of the very person who would have invited her to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. Botham Jean was a devout Christian who had made a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ and seek baptism at age 8. He was active in church, where he loved to sing, and spent every Sunday making sure to speak with his parents who lived on the island of St. Lucia. Botham went to a Christian college in Arkansas he chose specifically in order to gain an education that would reinforce his Christian values, and by all accounts, led a praiseworthy life rooted in a joyful love for Jesus.
Guyger faced a maximum sentence of life without parole; the jury decided to return a verdict of 10 years without parole. Brandt’s family hoped the 10 years would help Guyger reflect and transform her life. After the sentencing, the judge handed Guyger a Bible.
Here is a transcript of Brandt Jean’s victim impact statement:
If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. 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 and not on behalf of my family — but I love you just like anyone else.
And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally 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: 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?
With so many Christians having divorced their beliefs from the strict following of Jesus Christ in their day-to-day lives, Brandt’s actions will doubtless seem extraordinary. But for Brandt, as for Botham Jean, extending forgiveness and love to one’s persecutors is an essential part of the ordinary life of the disciple of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount.
Brandt’s forgiveness may transform Guyger no less than the Christian community’s forgiveness transformed St. Paul, the murderer of Stephen and many disciples of Jesus, into an ardent disciple of Christ and his Gospel. Perhaps it may also lead others to reflect on their own lives, and like Botham Jean, make a decision to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, reestablishing justice with mercy, and vanquishing evil by offering love.