Supreme Court lets stand death sentence after Bible reading

A death-row inmate claimed the jury foreman violated his fair-trial rights by reading out loud from Romans.

A Texas death-row inmate has lost his bid for a new sentencing hearing after complaining that the jury foreman at his capital murder trial read a Bible passage aloud to the entire jury before the panel returned his death sentence.

Lawyers for Jimmie Urbano Lucero had asked the US Supreme Court to take up the case to examine whether reading Bible passages aloud during jury deliberations violates fair-trial rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

On Monday, the high court declined to take up the case. The justices offered no explanation. The action lets stand decisions by the courts in Texas affirming Mr. Lucero's death sentence.

Lucero was convicted of carrying out the shotgun murder of three of his neighbors in 2003: a husband, wife, and their daughter. Two other children escaped during the attack and testified against Lucero.

During the penalty phase of the 2005 trial, the jury was asked to decide whether Lucero should receive punishment of life in prison or a death sentence. During an initial straw vote, 10 members of the 12-member jury voted for death. Two jurors opposed a death sentence.

At that point in the deliberations, the jury foreman produced his personal Bible and read a passage aloud to the 11 other jurors. He read from Romans 13: 1-6 in the New International Version of the Bible.

It says in part: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.... For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

The Bible reading took about two minutes. The jury continued to deliberate for several hours. When a new vote was taken, the panel decided 12 to 0 in favor of death.

At issue in the appeal was whether reading the Bible aloud during jury deliberations violated the defendant's right to a fair trial. The precise question was whether the Bible introduced unauthorized materials and extraneous considerations into the trial process.

Courts in both the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, and the 11th Circuit in Atlanta have ruled that the introduction of a Bible into jury deliberations violates the right to an impartial jury, the right to confrontation, and the right to a fair trial. But courts in the Fourth Circuit in Richmond and the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco have ruled that the presentation of specific Bible verses during jury deliberations does not violate the Sixth Amendment because the Bible's teachings are a matter of common knowledge in American culture.

"This case provides an excellent opportunity for the Court to resolve the split [among federal circuit courts] by reaffirming its longstanding precedents that the Sixth Amendment guarantees that jury verdicts in criminal cases will be based on the evidence developed at trial, and nothing else," wrote Lucero's lawyer, John Mathias of Chicago, in his brief urging the court to take up the case.

The Texas attorney general's office holds a different view. Courts must protect an impartial jury from outside influences that might corrupt the deliberation process, but in the Lucero case the influences were internal to the jury itself, lawyers for Texas said.

"The Bible had no evidentiary relationship to the jury's punishment deliberations," said Edward Marshall, chief of the postconviction litigation division of the attorney general's office, in his brief. "The Biblical passage from Romans in this case bears no relationship to the factual issues facing the jury."

Mr. Marshall said that rather than corrupting the deliberations, the Bible reading reinforced the judge's jury instructions and was harmless to the outcome of the trial. "It duplicates the trial court's own charge authorizing the jury to make this moral judgment," he wrote.

Lucero's lawyer, Mr. Mathias, said in his brief that a reasonable interpretation of Romans 13: 1-6 is that it instructs jurors to engage in "passive obedience to the state's call for punishment."

He added, "It cannot be said that the passage was harmless beyond any reasonable doubt."

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