The pursuit of forgiveness

After his brother was murdered in Dallas, an 18-year-old from the island of St. Lucia made a decision that shook the world — and tested the limits of mercy

His eyes dart from side to side through a pair of thick, black frames, as if he doesn’t know where to look. The camera’s lens watches him alone, so in the view of history, it’s impossible to say what he’s trying to see. Maybe the judge, stoic and perched to his left. Maybe his family, still reeling and raw and tear-stricken in the wooden pews of the Dallas courtroom, suddenly emptied with the verdict delivered. Or maybe he’s just looking for the right words, hoping they’ll come to him now, with every remaining observer focused on him and what he has to say.

Brandt Jean steadies his trim, athletic frame, scoots his chair toward the microphone and releases a deep exhale. In the world outside the four minutes that would make him famous, everyone already knows his family’s story. By the time he opens his mouth, everyone has already heard everything they need to hear, on talk radio or cable news or even YouTube, already decided how to feel and how everyone else should feel, too. The trial that brought him here marked a rare moment of unity in a nation starved for it — a moment when Americans could rise together in certainty. In communal condemnation. “Mr. Jean,” an unseen lawyer tells the 18-year-old, “the floor is yours.” 

For a moment, just a small moment, his eyes stare down at the accused, former police officer Amber Guyger. Then they stare straight ahead, as if what he’s about to say is not something between two people, but between him and God. “I don’t want to say twice, or for the hundredth time,” he begins, shaking his head from side to side, “what you’ve, or how much you’ve taken from us. I think you already know that. But I just” — his voice quavers. He pauses and sighs and looks down toward the floor. He sits up in the black, leather chair. “If you truly are sorry, I know — I can speak for myself — I know I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, He will forgive you.” 

The Jean household in St. Lucia is filled with images of Botham Jean and what was taken from the family. | Jelani Le’Bourne for the Deseret News

Any shifting in the pews pauses. Sneezes and coughs get gulped down. The courtroom becomes silent, and still. 

Brandt tugs at the collar of his purple, paisley dress shirt, right where his pink tie hangs just below his top button. His hand flops into his lap, as if he can’t stand to lift it anymore. “Again, I’m speaking for myself, not on behalf of my family,” he continues. “But I love you just like anyone else.” Soon, his voice cracks. He clicks his tongue twice, opening his mouth to speak without finding the words, until he does. He tells her she should give her life to Christ, then continues: “I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.” Brandt takes one more deep breath through his nose. With his left hand, he wipes a tear from his eye. Now his gaze turns toward the judge. “I don’t know if this is possible,” he says, “but could I give her a hug, please?” He taps his hand against the top of the witness stand and sniffles. “Please?”

“Yes,” the judge says. 

Brandt hops up from his seat. Guyger meets him in the middle of the courtroom. With the judge wiping away tears in the background, Amber Guyger and Brandt Jean sway together for 45 long seconds. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Guyger tells him. He doesn’t say anything. He just closes his eyes, nods his head and pats the back of his brother’s killer. 

The only way to fix the situation, Brandt reasoned at the time, was to retaliate. He planned to kill Amber Guyger.

There are moments — fleeting and rare, but moments — when Brandt wonders about what he did. Usually it’s too painful to ponder even the most basic facts: his brother, an innocent, unarmed man, shot to death by a police officer in his own apartment, right next to his unfinished bowl of ice cream. But September marked five years since Brandt’s brother, 26-year-old Botham Jean, was killed, and four since Guyger’s trial. One weekday morning, around the time of the anniversaries, Brandt leans back in a rickety wooden chair at Petra’s Cafe, a beachside bungalow on the shores of the Caribbean Sea in his home country, the island nation of St. Lucia. Small waves lick the sandy shore of Vigie Beach, near the capital of Castries. Salt seasons the heavy breezes. Botham’s grave rests just a short walk away. In many ways, today’s Brandt Jean is not the Brandt Jean from the courtroom that day. At 22 years old, he’s no longer a wiry, clean-shaven teenager, but an aspiring bodybuilder with stretch marks spread like spider webs across his biceps and a patchy beard on his well-defined chin. His thinking has evolved, too. “What I said,” Brandt admits now, “was not aligned with how I felt. At all.” 

From the outside, watching the video of Brandt’s court speech on YouTube, became a kind of Rorschach test. Some saw in Brandt’s actions a Christ-like ideal worth striving for. “What an amazing young man. We can all learn from him,” wrote one commenter. Others saw nothing but ingratiation and naivete. “Imagine begging to give your brother’s murderer a hug,” wrote another viewer. The clip is even harder to watch when you know the full extent of Brandt’s relationship with Botham and the circumstances of his death. When you know exactly what Brandt had to weigh in his soul to find forgiveness, when so much of his soul was screaming at him to say something, anything, else. “It’s knowing what I had to say,” he explains, looking toward the foggy outline of Martinique on the horizon, “more than what I wanted to say.”

Somewhere in the back roads of St. Lucia, where the graying asphalt winds through the tangled vines of the nation’s mountain jungles, you can probably still find tire skid marks left behind by Botham and Brandt. Botham was 10 years older than his little brother, so they didn’t always have much in common. Driving brought them together. Botham learned back in 2008, around the time he turned 17. Even though the driving age in St. Lucia is 18, he’d often sneak the keys to their dad’s Suzuki Grand Vitara and bring his little brother along. They’d zip through the canopy, zooming through turns where they could hardly see around the bend thanks to the wild grasses reaching into the road. Their father even taught Botham to drift, to slide through turns, and when he did, Brandt might as well have been on a ride at Disneyland; the feeling was pure magic. 

Their father wasn’t blind to their mischief. He’d often come home, place his hand on the hood of the car and feel the heat. He’d turn to Brandt first, and Brandt would lie. “You’re gonna lie for Botham?” his dad would say. “He never lies for you.” That was true. In fact, Brandt and his brother differed in many ways. Brandt was always sporty, always playing cricket or doing taekwondo. And when he wasn’t in the field or at the gym, he was alone. Botham was more academic, and much more outgoing. They clashed, and they learned from each other. Brandt, especially, from Botham. 

For a while, Botham was involved with a rough crowd. One night, he came home from an outing with a friend visibly shaken. He and a friend, he soon admitted, had been targeted in a gang-related robbery. Brandt and Botham’s uncle was livid; he grabbed Botham by the shirt and marched him into the neighborhood until they found the culprits. “You see this face?” the uncle told the assailants. “Whenever you see this man, don’t touch him.” They got Botham’s stuff back, but the uncle wouldn’t quit. He talked about vengeance. It was Botham who had to calm him down; to assure him that the best thing to do, rather than to escalate, was to move on. To show mercy. 

Botham left for college in 2011, opting to attend a Church of Christ-sponsored school in Arkansas called Harding University. The brothers started talking more around that time. They’d talk about sports, about video games, about women. Botham spoke about what it meant to be prepared for marriage. He’d interview married men, asking what it meant to them, and insisted on waiting until he was ready. “With him, preparation was not financial,” Brandt says. “The preparation he was talking about was character.” That’s where most of their conversations eventually ended up. Botham wanted to instill in Brandt, more than anything, a sense of right and wrong. Of having leverage and not using it. Brandt admits he’s always been an angry person. He’s had to learn to manage his rage — at least in part because of his brother’s influence. Although he didn’t learn to forgive from him. No sir. Botham may have shown mercy time and again; he may have talked about and modeled character; but Botham did not easily forget when he’d been wronged. He did, however, know something about moving on. 

After a bad car accident in 2018 — he flipped his mom’s sedan while his parents were on a cruise — Brandt’s guilt consumed him. “My mom was just happy that I was OK,” he says, “but I was just so sorry.” For months, he felt like there was nothing he could do to make it up to her. He rarely spoke with Botham by then; since 2016, Botham had lived in Dallas, working as a risk assurance associate at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. But they did talk about this. “No matter how big anything seems,” Botham told Brandt, “we get through regardless.”

That was the last time Brandt remembers speaking with his brother. 

Despite all his anger and grief, he remembered she was a person.

After a nearly 14-hour shift, Amber Guyger got off work around 9:30 on the evening of Sept. 6, 2018. Employed by the Dallas Police Department since 2013, without any disciplinary issues, Guyger, 30, was tall and trim, with pin-straight blonde hair and thin eyebrows. She spoke with her patrol partner over the phone as she steered through the parking garage of the South Side Flats apartment complex, a forgettable, beige, four-story structure with a 7-Eleven next door and near the intersection of Interstate 30 and Interstate 35 East in central Dallas. Guyger parked just before 10 p.m. and made her way to the entrance to her building. She lived on the third floor, in Unit 1378. 

She found the apartment’s front door unlocked, slightly ajar. She heard noises, and since she lived alone, she assumed there was an intruder on the other side. She opened the door with her left arm and drew her Glock with her right, ignoring the taser and pepper spray on her belt. The apartment was dark. She saw a silhouette toward the back. “Let me see your hands!” she shouted. “Let me see your hands!” The figure moved toward her; she’d later tell a jury she felt “scared to death,” assuming that someone was in her apartment and planned to kill her. She fired twice. One round missed and pricked the far wall; the other struck Botham Jean in the chest. 

As Guyger moved closer, she realized that while the apartment had the same layout as her own, the decor was different. At 9:59, she called 911. “Get up, man,” she says as the operator answers the call. “This is an off-duty officer. Can I get — I need EMS,” she explains. “I’m in number — I’m at — hold on.” The dread builds. She tells the operator that she needs police and medical. “I’m in Apartment 1478,” she finally says. Her inflection makes it sound more like a question; like she can’t believe it. “I’m in 1478,” she repeats, more sure this time. 

“I thought I was in my apartment, and I shot a guy thinking he was — thinking it was my apartment.” She pauses. “Oh my God. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, come on, man,” she tells Botham as the operator continues to probe for information. She identifies herself, and the operator tells her that help is on the way. “I know,” she says between heavy breaths. “But I’m — I’m gonna lose my job.” She returns her attention to Botham. “Hey bud. Hey bud. Hey bud,” she says. “I thought it was my apartment,” she adds, her voice breaking. “Hey bud. Hey bud. They’re coming, bud. I’m sorry.” After a long pause, she starts talking to herself: “Oh my God, I’m done. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry.” 

She paces the hallway outside Botham’s apartment. Officers finally arrive. She leads them to Botham, who is on the floor in front of his couch. Beside him, visible in police body cam footage, an iron stands upright on an ironing board. A bowl of unfinished vanilla ice cream rests on his coffee table. “Where did you shoot him?” one responder asks. “Top left! Top left!” Guyger says. “Hey, can you hear me?” an officer asks Botham. “Can you hear me?” Botham says nothing. He’s still breathing, but unconscious. The officer kneels down and pumps Botham’s chest, bobbing up and down with each compression. “Talk to me! Hey! Talk to me!” Another officer switches off with the first. “C’mon chief. C’mon chief,” the new officer says. Botham is unresponsive. Blood spatters the white carpet. They continue for a few more minutes until paramedics arrive. By then, Botham has no pulse and isn’t breathing. They place him on a dark blue stretcher and haul him away. Fewer than 10 minutes have passed since the shots were fired. Guyger trails, offering advice on navigating the apartment’s layout. 

Botham Jean never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead later that night at Baylor Medical Center, weeks away from his 27th birthday. 

Back in St. Lucia, Brandt’s mother was traveling for work. It was just Brandt and his dad at home. His mom called around 2 a.m. Brandt had stayed up watching YouTube videos, so he picked up. She asked only to speak to Brandt’s father. Brandt brought over the phone and stayed in the room for their conversation. His dad’s head dropped into his hands, and he didn’t speak for 10 minutes. When he did, he said only one word to Brandt: “Botham.” What? “Botham,” he said again. “Botham. Somebody shot Botham.”

Soon, relatives descended upon their home to offer comfort. That’s when Brandt began to suspect the worst, but held hope that Botham had survived. He attended school the next day, just to get away from everything for a while, but at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, everyone else already seemed to know. “Bro,” one classmate asked, pushing a news story to his face, “that’s your brother on my phone?” Some offered hugs. In the courtyard, it felt like every single person was walking toward him at once. 

He knows he left with his family for Dallas later that day, and arrived by the following morning. He doesn’t recall much about what happened in between. Remembering hurts. Time blurs. He knows that once in Dallas his mother kept him away from the autopsy report, which he still doesn’t appreciate. He knows he didn’t cry until one night in his hotel room, when the reality set in. “It made less and less sense the more details I heard,” he says. His brother, he realized, had been killed for no reason. “My mind is like, ‘OK, what do we do next? How do we solve this situation?’ But with this, there’s no solving the situation,” he says. “He’s just gone.

“And that’s where the anger came in.” 

A fellow human who, though she’d taken his brother’s life, had also doomed herself to a lifetime of torment.

Botham’s funeral at the towering, gray-stone Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Castries, the capital of  St. Lucia, became a national event. On an island of just 180,000 people, the news of one of their own, gunned down by a white police officer in the U.S., had made the final moments in the life of Botham Jean a countrywide obsession. Vendors hawked water and popcorn as hundreds of St. Lucians streamed into the island’s largest church. Inside, Brandt sang Botham’s favorite church song, “Our God, He is Alive.”  It’s something he felt like he had to do to honor his brother, but like everything else he had to do, it brought no relief. “At some point it got excessive, but my mom just made sure we stayed through everything,” he says. “Because we didn’t know what else to do.” 

The three-hour service led up to the burial, where Brandt saw for the first time people who weren’t family members who actually knew Botham and missed him terribly. He saw the physical pain it inflicted upon them to see the casket lowered into the sandy ground. “It felt like the lower he was,” Brandt says, “the further away he was going.” Many cried, but not Brandt. Not until he got home and could be alone. 

The only way to fix the situation, he reasoned at the time, was to retaliate. He planned to kill Amber Guyger. His friends would tell him to stop joking around when he discussed his ideas, but it was no joke to him. He dwelled on the how. And on another question suddenly simmering: “Am I crazy?” It proved difficult to answer. After all, he’d already punched holes in his bedroom door and put dents in his family’s drywall. “After several times losing it over this situation, you’re trying to figure out — I hope I’m still sane,” he says. “I hope I can still go back to normal life after this.” He exploded on people for trivial reasons. He couldn’t have genuine conversations without turning snide and rude. He also couldn’t sit down to eat dinner; he started eating standing up, pacing his family’s living room, unable to sit still with his dueling thoughts of vengeance and despair. 

Jelani Le’Bourne for the Deseret News

Every day, if he went anywhere, he’d get clobbered with images of Botham. With strangers wanting to talk about Botham. People even sent portraits — entire canvases! — of Botham to the family’s house. The only way Brandt could preserve his sanity, he reasoned, was to retreat into himself. “Am I right for making myself alone, just to keep the peace?” he’d wonder. “Or am I selfish for not grieving with the rest of my family?” He also wondered what Botham would do. 

When the trial arrived in September 2019, he’d reached what he later recognized as the peak of his depression. He stopped cutting his hair. He stopped caring about anything. The rage was still there, “forever warm,” but with his family conferring with lawyers, pursuing murder charges, Brandt felt like “a lone soldier,” completely detached from their decisions. 

The trial did, however, give him something to look forward to. He hoped it would finally answer a question he’d wondered about since the shooting first happened: Did Guyger have any malicious intent when she shot his brother? Did this happen for a reason — any reason at all?

Many viewed his actions as traitorous; as offensive to Botham’s legacy. “Imagine begging to give your brother’s murderer a hug,” wrote one YouTube viewer.

The difference between Guyger’s guilt and innocence came down to a single word. To judge whether Amber Guyger was innocent under the law, the jury had to determine how a “reasonable” person would respond to the situation Guyger encountered that night. In his opening statement, her lawyer called the shooting “the perfect storm of innocent circumstances,” and implored the jury to ignore the media’s “click bait” about the case; the only thing that mattered, he said, was using their common sense. If they did that, they’d find his client innocent. “Reason and common sense will show you that on Sept. 6, 2018, Amber Guyger firmly and reasonably believed she was in her own apartment.” (Guyger and her attorneys did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.) 

Guyger took the stand in her own defense, and for over three hours, she didn’t do much to help her case. She said she drew her weapon as she opened the door, then saw a “silhouette figure standing in the back of the apartment by the window.” She ordered Botham to show her his hands, but he moved toward her screaming “Hey! Hey! Hey!” A lawyer asked why she fired. “I was scared. I was scared that this person was in my apartment,” she answered, barely able to speak through tears. “And I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” Later, her attorneys asked how she felt about what she’d done. “I feel like a terrible person. I feel like a piece of crap. I hate it. I hate every — I hate that I have to live with this every single day of my life,” she answered. “I feel like I don’t deserve the chance to be with my family and friends. I wish he was the one with the gun and had killed me.” She added, later, “I never want anybody to ever have to go through or even imagine going through what I felt that night.”

“I never want anybody to ever have to go through or even imagine going through what I felt that night,” one of the prosecutors said to begin his closing argument, reading Guyger’s words verbatim off a sheet of paper. “That was one of the very last things the defendant said when she was on the stand. Are you kidding me?” he added, crumpling up the paper and tossing it aside. “That is garbage. Most of what she said was garbage.” The prosecution argued that, while Guyger did believe she was in her apartment, it was not a reasonable belief. They laid out the evidence: A red floor mat outside Botham’s apartment that she should have noticed. Her key flashing red in the electronic lock, but opening the door anyway because it wasn’t fully closed. An odor of marijuana so thick that investigators said it was still present a full two days after the shooting. “This case is all about what is reasonable, and what is absurd,” the prosecutor said. Not noticing all those signs of her mistake, he argued, was not reasonable. Drawing her gun before even walking inside was not reasonable. And, surely, a man dying that way was absurd. It was the very definition of absurd. There needed to be consequences. 

Brandt didn’t miss a moment. He didn’t take a single bathroom break. When the rest of his family left the courtroom to avoid watching the body cam footage of Botham bleeding out on his carpet, Brandt stayed. “It was like a show,” he says, “and the more I heard, the more glued I was to the show.” But the answers he sought were missing, even if some tried to fill them in anyway.

Because of the optics of the case — a white, off-duty police officer shooting an unarmed Black man in his home — Botham’s killing is often associated with other cases of racial injustice perpetrated by police officers. The prosecution even surfaced text messages where Guyger told her partner that her Black colleagues “have a different way of working and it shows.” She also mocked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in texts, saying that festivities in his honor would end “when MLK is dead … oh wait …”  But Brandt didn’t buy the argument that racism played a factor in the killing. He wishes he did, because at least that would give him some kind of explanation. But as far as he could tell, the evidence of a racial motive was flimsy. He does wonder if maybe she was quicker to pull the trigger because his brother was Black. Maybe. But, by her own admission, she drew her weapon before she even opened the door. “(They’re) implying that she shot him specifically because he was Black,” Brandt says. “And that’s not what happened.” Like the prosecution, though, he doesn’t understand how she missed all the signs. The red mat. The key. The door number. The smell. He understands how she ended up there. He doesn’t understand why she had to shoot. 

In his closing argument, the prosecutor got confident, telling the jury that acquittal wasn’t even on the table. This was a question only of murder or manslaughter, “and it’s murder,” he said. When she drew her weapon, she intended to kill Botham Jean. It was not accidental, by her own admission. And her saying she felt threatened, he argued, was irrelevant. She never should have been in that situation to begin with. “It’s not a mistake. It’s a series of unreasonable decisions. She did not think that night,” he said. “This is about a reasonable person under the same circumstances” — not about the defendant and what she felt. “There’s got to be consequences for your actions,” he concluded. “Bo is dead because of her unreasonable choices.”

After about five hours of deliberation, the jury agreed, finding Guyger guilty of murder. “Praise be to God that we actually got justice — but still,” Brandt thought in that moment. “Still. He’s still gone.” And he still didn’t understand why, because there really wasn’t any reason. It was random. It was absurd. That made it even harder to accept. And no matter how good their small glimmer of justice felt, his family was going to have to learn how to live without Botham. “So all I’m thinking about,” Brandt says, “is, ‘How do we get better?’”

Jelani Le’Bourne for the Deseret News

In the pursuit of justice for their son, the Jean family and their legal team had approached the trial like a war. They trained for different battles, and strategically decided who would contribute where. They decided that Botham’s friend would testify at a certain point; that his father would testify at another. The general was Brandt’s mother. “My mom really wanted the murder charge. That’s all she really cared about at that point,” Brandt says. “Because she felt like that was the best she could have done for her son.” After the verdict, the family wasn’t allowed to react too loudly in the courtroom, so they saved it for the nearest elevator. Together, they screamed. Together, they cried tears of joy. But when they returned the following day, it was time for Brandt to fulfill his role.

The “victim impact statement” offers a chance for family and friends to address the condemned directly; to show her, and the jury, how her actions had impacted them. The responsibility fell to Brandt. Not that he wanted it. He’d been told about his role early on, but he’d refused. The rage and despair he felt could only hurt the mission, he thought, could only make things worse. He was sure that if he went up there, he’d go nuclear. He’d threaten Guyger’s life. He’d punch the witness stand. How could he possibly condense all of his emotions — all of his family’s emotions — into an impassioned, short, dignified speech? And how would it help anyone, including himself, if he did? 

Despite his refusal, when the time came for the victim impact statement, everyone in the courtroom turned to him. “OK,” he told himself, “I guess I’m doing this.” He stood up, shaking, sweaty. The fabric of his shirt clung to his back. He had no idea what to say. He hadn’t rehearsed, hadn’t given it any thought. He had no plan at all, aside from letting his feelings take over. 

Until his grandmother, sitting beside him, put her hand on his knee. “Remember,” she whispered to him, “it’s her soul that counts.”

Whether he felt that way or not, her words gave him focus. Had she told him the exact same thing the night before, he probably would have ignored it, but in that moment, he needed guidance. And he left himself open to what came next. As he approached the stand, a lawyer stopped him for some last-second explanation: This was his chance, the lawyer explained, to tell Guyger how he felt. And how he really felt, even then, was like killing her. But instead of saying that, he nodded his head and pursed his lips, and said he forgave Guyger. She had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he said that he didn’t even want her to go to jail. “I was surprised just like the world was,” he says. “Because it didn’t line up with how I felt, and how I’d been acting.” His grandma’s words had overshadowed his own feelings.

After he started saying what he said, he could feel the mood in the room change. They were soldiers no more. “My statement threw off the whole vibe,” he says. 

Like everything else, the hug was of the moment. The idea came to him when he looked down at Guyger, looked at her eyes. He saw a woman beaten. A woman forever condemned to wander the ruins of her poor choices. The more he’d spoken, the more his emotions had improved, until finally, “I really felt sorry for her,” he says. She has a family; her mother and sister had just testified about her, and Brandt was paying attention through it all. In that moment, despite all his anger and grief, he remembered she was a person. A fellow human who, though she’d taken his brother’s life, had also doomed herself to a lifetime of torment. He chose, in the face of her suffering, to offer some kind of comfort. And the only kind he knew of was his faith — and a hug to forever remind her what faith looked like to him. 

His decision unleashed a flood of public reaction, much of it positive. “That is TRUE forgiveness,” wrote a YouTube commenter.  He appeared on CNN. He appeared on “Good Morning America.” He joined his family for a televised sitdown with Dr. Phil. During media trips in New York, random people on the streets wanted selfies with him. Many more also reached out directly on social media. They always said the same thing: He helped them forgive the person who’d hurt them most — and, more importantly, helped them move on. “Even amongst all that positivity,” he says, “all I hear is, ‘My brother died.’” 

That’s also what he heard from the torrent of criticism. Many viewed his actions as traitorous; as offensive to Botham’s legacy. Panelists on the influential “Rickey Smiley Morning Show” devoted a four-minute segment to Brandt’s baffling actions. “I just don’t understand that,” one said. He understands their point of view. “I absolutely get it if vengeance is how you feel,” he says. Or justice. For goodness’ sake, his own sister has devoted much of her professional life since Botham’s death to justice. In a recent memoir, “After Botham,” even she called Brandt’s decision “perplexing.” But in their anger and indignation, however righteous, Brandt once more hears the same thing: His brother is dead, and no amount of vengeance or earthly justice would change that. Nor would forgiveness, but more than any alternative, it would help him move on. That, at least, was the hope. 

When he finished speaking, most people in the courtroom that day seemed pleased. Even moved. The judge retreated to her chambers and, following Brandt’s lead, returned with a Bible for Guyger to study in prison. Then she offered a hug of her own. But Brandt wasn’t present for any of that. As soon as it was over, he withdrew to the solitude of an adjacent courtroom, where no one could see him. Where he could again be alone. 

There, somewhere between his sister’s frustration and the judge’s embrace of his improvised sermon, Brandt punched another dent in the drywall. 

No one knows about the letter. Not his mom. Not his dad. Not his sister. They could find it easily enough; it rests in an unassuming manila folder, atop a pile of papers in the family’s office. It always goes on top, wherever it is, like a Bible. “It’s sacred to me,” Brandt says. “It’s just — special.” More so than any of his other accolades, and there have been many. 

One of the biggest was the 2019 Ethical Courage Award from the Institute for Law Enforcement Administration. “I can’t think of an act that was more courageous,” the institute’s director said of Brandt’s forgiveness. Brandt disagrees. It felt more natural than anything. But, aware of the controversy his remarks caused, he accepted the award and used the opportunity to clarify that his forgiveness is no substitute for accountability. “My brother was well aware of the danger posed to young Black men due to the misconceptions about color that seem particularly pronounced among the law enforcement community,” Brandt told the group during his acceptance. “I want you all to know I am not a threat, that young Black males are not inherently dangerous or criminal.” 

Indeed, he’s grateful that Guyger was held accountable, and that a jury found her guilty. Killing someone for no reason, whether they felt threatened or not, should not go unpunished. But his disagreement in philosophy is as simple as this: There is no way to get justice for his brother. Not really. The only way to make the situation right would be to bring him back, and that’s outside the capacity of any legal system. Brandt enrolled at Harding in spring 2020. He completed four semesters, but he had to walk by a bronze-cast memorial of Botham just to get to the cafeteria. Fellow students wanted to talk to him for papers, or interview him for student media outlets. “People knew of me before they knew me,” he says.

Jelani Le’Bourne for the Deseret News

He decided to return to St. Lucia — not that the reminders are any less prevalent there. Just about every room in his family’s burnt-orange home in the Carellie neighborhood of Castries features a portrait of Botham. Some are black-and-white; some are photographs; some are more abstract. All of them ensure Botham’s memory is not forgotten — for better and worse. For the rest of his life, Brandt will have to confront that reality, and as the years have passed, it’s gotten easier. People have stopped asking for selfies, or approaching him in public at all, so that helps. And he recently removed the bedroom door he punched holes in out of anger — although it now rests beneath the family’s kitchen, in a cement overhang favored by a big-headed rottweiler named Mister. He likes to keep it around, as a reminder of how far he’s come. As a reminder of how his decision to forgive could help heal. He keeps the letter around for the same reason. 

It came from Guyger, who hasn’t spoken publicly since the trial. But she did write to a member of Brandt’s church from his time in Arkansas, and the member sent a copy of the letter to Brandt. It’s dated Jan. 20, 2020 — almost three years before the Supreme Court would deny her final appeal. Even though she was still fighting to overturn her conviction, she wrote that she did read the Bible the judge had given her, and that she had deepened her faith. She also said she had no way of contacting Botham’s family, but to “let them know I love and care about them. That will never change.” And finally, she addressed Brandt’s act of forgiveness directly. “I am also proud of Brandt,” she said. “I look up to him and if he or his family ever needed anything I would be there for them.” She signed off with a heart. 

He chose, in the face of her suffering, to offer some kind of comfort. And the only kind he knew of was his faith — and a hug to forever remind her what faith looked like to him. 

When he received the letter and read it for the first time, Brandt rushed to the local library to have it laminated. It’s a great treasure; a reminder of who he aspires to be. He was moved by Guyger’s commitment to the Bible — lately he had been crediting Jesus for inspiring his own act of mercy — and warmed to hear that his speech had affected her so deeply. “It’s an honor to have that kind of impact,” he explains. He hasn’t shown anyone in his family because he doesn’t want to hurt them. He fears they might not be ready. But he refers back to it sometimes, randomly, whenever he’s struggling and needs to have his moral compass realigned. And when that isn’t enough, he turns to something else no one knows about. 

Botham Jean’s body rests in a narrow strip of graves called the Choc Cemetery, bracketed by the Caribbean Sea on one side and the George F.L. Charles Regional Airport on the other. At any given moment, the gentle churn of the waves against the coastline can be interrupted by the roar of a private jet, but for the most part, it is a tranquil place. Coconut palms rustle. Sea birds chirp. The grave itself is as big as a refrigerator and is painted dark blue, with a portrait of Botham on the tombstone alongside the words “A life so beautifully lived; A heart so deeply loved; A memory so richly treasured; Jewel who is missed beyond measure!” It might be the most well-trafficked gravesite in St. Lucia. For his birthday, and for the other anniversaries, mourners descend — but not Brandt. He prefers to visit his brother alone. Even recently, for the five-year anniversary of Botham’s death, Brandt maintained his distance from the others. “I hope they understood,” he says of his family, but he’s tired of having to perform his grief. The only way he feels like he can really connect with his brother, and really accept his absence, is to visit the grave by himself. “The only way I’ve ever dealt with any form of negative emotion,” he explains, “is loneliness.” He estimates he goes about once every week; the guys who maintain the cemetery know him and his car as soon as he pulls up. He hasn’t told anyone because he doesn’t want them to probe him for answers. He just wants to heal in the way that feels most natural, without judgment. 

Healing these days means confronting difficult feelings, like knowing his brother may not have agreed with his decision. In media interviews he had said that he’d probably done what Botham wanted, that he would have wanted him to forgive Guyger. But he doesn’t know. Not really. “I can’t say I’m so sure,” he admits. And he’s certain that his brother would have hated the hug. “I don’t think he would’ve wanted me to hug her,” Brandt says. “I think he would’ve been mad.” Between wondering about what Botham would’ve thought and worrying about what his family thinks of how he’s handled everything, his conscience can become a burden. Even more so when he’s constantly measuring himself against his courtroom speech, a moment that defined his life when he was just 18. He often compares himself to the person he was then, and wonders why he can’t be that person again. Which is why he recommends people act on their forgiving instincts whenever the mood strikes. That openness, he has learned, can be fleeting. “If you get the opportunity, I think it’s a gift,” he says. “Because you’re not always going to be in a frame of mind where it’s going to seem easy.” 

Outside his visits to his brother’s grave, Brandt has much to look forward to. He’s hoping to enroll at Florida International University in Miami next year to resume his studies; right now he works as an engineering assistant, but with his degree, he hopes to become a certified engineer. He’s also taken up bodybuilding and personal training, and his family just acquired a tract of farmland, so he’s hoping to take up animal husbandry, too. Wherever the coming years take him, though, he’s sure to keep finding his way back to this tombstone beside the ocean, alone, caught somewhere between forgiving Amber Guyger and forgiving himself. 

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.