High court lets stand 'no Bible' ruling

States disagree over role Holy Scriptures should play in jurors' deliberations.

To many faithful readers, the Bible is a timeless source of inspiration, wisdom, and compassion.

But when judges discovered that deliberating jurors in a Colorado murder trial had consulted a copy of the Holy Scriptures before delivering their verdict, the defendant's death sentence was overturned as biased and unreliable.

Although prosecutors asked the US Supreme Court to take up the case, it refused - without comment - on Monday to second-guess the Colorado judges. Because the state court decision stands, convicted murderer Robert Harlan will be held in prison for the rest of his life rather than facing a death sentence.

The case raises fundamental questions about what role, if any, religious faith should play in the American justice system. By refusing to take it, the high court leaves in place a patchwork of conflicting rulings by state and federal judges across the country over what to do about Bibles in the jury room. In addition to Colorado, the supreme courts of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tennessee suggest Bible use during deliberations undermines a defendant's right to a fair trial.

In contrast, the California and Virginia supreme courts and a federal appeals court in Richmond see no problem with use of the Bible by jurors, provided its passages are not relied upon as a code in place of state or federal law.

Undermining fair trial?

The central issue in Colorado v. Harlan was whether a juror's citation of two Bible passages to fellow jurors undermined the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.

Jurors are routinely told throughout a trial that they are to base their deliberations in the case solely upon the evidence presented in court and the judge's instructions on the applicable law. They are repeatedly cautioned to avoid news coverage of the case that might include details about the crime or the defendant that the judge has decided to exclude from the jury's consideration.

But the jurors in Mr. Harlan's trial were also told by the judge that it was their job to "make an individual moral assessment" that death is the appropriate punishment rather than life in prison.

Matters of faith

For many individuals, making such a "moral assessment" involves deeply held beliefs about right and wrong that touch on matters of religious faith. If jurors are permitted - and even encouraged - to use their religious beliefs as a basis to reach a verdict in a death penalty case, prosecutors in the Harlan case asked why would consultation with a religious text automatically invalidate that approach?

The Bible episode arose after a long day of deliberations in the Harlan case. One juror in particular said he was reluctant to support a death sentence because it clashed with his faith. The juror's first name - Jesus.

That night, several of the sequestered jurors consulted Bibles in their hotel rooms seeking passages to counter the juror's concerns. The following day at least one of the jurors brought a Bible to the deliberations to share her research with other members of the jury.

The juror quoted Leviticus 24:20-21, which reads in part: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.... He that killeth a man, he shall be put to death." The juror also pointed to Romans 13:1: "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God."

By noon that second day the jury returned a unanimous verdict - death.

The district judge who reversed Harlan's death sentence said the jurors improperly relied on a biblical "code" to dictate their verdict. In effect, the Bible became a 13th juror in the deliberations.

"Jury resort to biblical code has no place in a constitutional death penalty proceeding," the judge said.

In a 3-2 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed, ruling that using a Bible in the jury room during deliberations undermines a capital defendant's right to a fair trial.

Don Quick, district attorney in Brighton, Col., says in his US Supreme Court brief that the Colorado high court ruling means that the mere presence of a Bible during death penalty deliberations automatically prevents a fair decision.

Mr. Quick says the correct question should be whether the Bible exerted any improper influence upon the jurors.

Harlan's lawyer, Chief Appellate Deputy Public Defender Kathleen Lord, disagrees with Quick's assessment. "This is not a case involving 'the mere presence of a Bible' during deliberations," she says in her brief. "Rather ... the district court made extensive findings as to the jurors' actual use of mandatory death penalty passages from the Bible during deliberations."

When questioned under oath in a post-trial hearing, the jurors denied that the Bible passages dictated their deliberations and verdict. The judge rejected their testimony as not credible, noting discrepancies among the various jurors' accounts of the deliberations.

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