Law and forgiveness in a Texas courtroom

An offer of forgiveness by Brandt Jean to the killer of his brother shows how the justice system can make room for acts that bring repentance and reconciliation.

The Dallas Morning News via AP
Brandt Jean hugs Amber Guyger after she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing his brother.

In a new book, a former dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, opens with this observation on today’s society: “Ours is an unforgiving age, an age of resentment. The supply of forgiveness is deficient.” She wrote the book – “When Should Law Forgive?” – because of what she sees as the limits of the law in dealing with the worst of crimes, such as murder, as well as the difficulty in forgiving crimes “that defy conception.”

The book is well timed. On Wednesday in a Dallas County courthouse, a TV camera caught yet another public example of a unilateral act of personal forgiveness to an individual who had committed a heinous crime.

It came from Brandt Jean, the brother of a black man murdered in 2018 by an off-duty white policewoman, Amber Guyger, who just on Tuesday had been convicted of the crime.

At the sentencing hearing, Mr. Jean told the weeping woman that he loved her, did not want her to go to jail, and wanted the best for her. “If you truly are sorry ... I forgive. I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you,” he said.

The judge then granted his wish to hug the killer of his brother. With what seemed like a contrite heart, Ms. Guyger welcomed the hug. It was an extraordinary scene of reconciliation that defies what Ms. Minow calls “an unforgiving age.”

In her book, Ms. Minow asks when legal officials can and should promote forgiveness between individuals. A good example was the Texas judge joining Mr. Jean in advising the convicted woman on steps toward repentance and redemption. In addition, the Dallas County district attorney, who was pleased with the 10-year sentence given for the crime, described the courtroom embrace as an “amazing act of healing.”

Ms. Minow describes offers of forgiveness as the “human efforts to follow divine example.” Such offers are given with an expectation of “breaking the cycle of vengeances” by forgoing the rightful grounds for grievance against those who committed harm. They involve “ceasing to let the wrongdoing count in one’s feelings toward the wrongdoer, even while maintaining recognition of the wrong.”

In the adversarial setting of a judicial process, Mr. Jean injected forgiveness. In the midst of impersonal punishment, he offered personal restoration. He invited Ms. Guyger to show the care and connection she failed to show during the murder. He offered her spiritual freedom during her years of human imprisonment.

To answer the book’s titled question, yes, there are times when law should forgive. As Ms. Minow writes, forgiveness encourages people to “prioritize creating a shared future over holding on to resentments of the past.” The supply of forgiveness is not “deficient.” It only needs to be brought out in everyone.

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