Colorado Court Bars Execution Because Jurors Consulted Bible
The Colorado Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a convicted killer because some jurors consulted a Bible in reaching the verdict.
In a sharply divided ruling, Colorado’s highest court on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision throwing out the sentence of a man who was given the death penalty after jurors consulted the Bible in reaching a verdict. The Bible, the court said, constituted an improper outside influence and a reliance on what the court called a “higher authority.” “The judicial system works very hard to emphasize the rarified, solemn and sequestered nature of jury deliberations,” the majority said in a 3-to-2 decision by a panel of the Colorado Supreme Court. “Jurors must deliberate in that atmosphere without the aid or distraction of extraneous texts.”
The ruling involved the conviction of Robert Harlan, who was found guilty in 1995 of raping and murdering a cocktail waitress near Denver. After Mr. Harlan’s conviction, the judge in the case – as Colorado law requires – sent the jury off to deliberate about the death penalty with an instruction to think beyond the narrow confines of the law. Each juror, the judge told the panel, must make an “individual moral assessment,” in deciding whether Mr. Harlan should live.
The jurors voted unanimously for death. The State Supreme Court’s decision changes that sentence to life in prison without parole.
In the decision on Monday, the dissenting judges said the majority had confused the internal codes of right and wrong that juries are expected to possess in such weighty moral matters with the outside influences that are always to be avoided, like newspaper articles or television programs about the case. The jurors consulted Bibles, the minority said, not to look for facts or alternative legal interpretations, but for wisdom. “The biblical passages the jurors discussed constituted either a part of the jurors’ moral and religious precepts or their general knowledge, and thus were relevant to their court-sanctioned moral assessment,” the minority wrote.
This decision is asinine.
Presumably, people who would consult the Bible for clues in how to weigh delicate moral issues are deeply religious. What if the same people had relied on their understanding of religious teaching but without actually looking anything up in the book? Would that be permissible? I’m guessing yes. What’s the difference, exactly?
Presumably, jurors in Colorado can refer to notes or, for example, a judge’s written instrtuctions in order to clarify questions they might have. Thus, this is not an injuction against jurors with bad memories.