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.

Colorado Court Bars Execution Because Jurors Consulted Bible (NYT)

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DaveD says:

    On the other hand U.S. judges seem to have no problem basing their decisions on judicial rulings or public sentiment in Europe. People do not seem to realize that the government belongs to them, not the judiciary.

  2. Fersboo says:

    Damn Zealots!

  3. I suppose if they had consulted a Bible and decided on a life sentence then that decision would also be overturned?

  4. Kappiy says:

    One has to wonder what Bible these folks were reading! According to the Pope, the Executive COuncil of the US Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and countless other religious groups, at least, condoning the death penalty isn’t very christan.

    Maybe they were reading the Qu’uran?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Kappiy: Most Protestant faiths are very pro death penalty.

  6. denise says:

    What I don’t understand is why the CO Supreme Court imposed a life sentence rather than sending the issue back for hearing by a new jury.

    Kappiy (inadvertently I think) raises a good point. A lot of texts could inform a person’s moral outlook. Maybe we are comfortable where it’s the Bible. Would it be okay if it were the Koran, or a text on satanism or astrology or whatever.

  7. Michael says:


    Not so fast: Most protestant PEOPLE are pro-Death Penalty. That doesn’t necessarily mean the faiths condone it.

    Just like the Pope being against birth control doesn’t mean Catholics themselves are against it.

  8. Old Testament = findable sanctions for Death Penalty, as practiced in Israli law at the time.

    Says nothing about how US government should approach the subject. However, you could take some of the verses in the Bible to suggest not giving the death penalty (and some do). Disqualifying a jury just because they used the Bible seems like a bad idea to me.

  9. Just Me says:

    “What I don’t understand is why the CO Supreme Court imposed a life sentence rather than sending the issue back for hearing by a new jury.”

    I was wondering this too.

    Also, I have issues with this, since the death penalty is based to some degree in moral outlook, and most people with religious faith will base their moral outlook on that faith.

    If they were deciding guilt or innocence I could see the argument, since the Bible isn’t exactly evidence, but I think anyone who is trying to make a decision as important as the removal of somebody’s life, they should be consulting to some degree what their moral beliefs are based on.

    Or does this decision now mean that anyone who is religious need not apply for jury duty? I am sorry, but Christians or other religious people should not be required to shed their moral foundations to decide a case.

  10. Anderson says:

    Denise is right, folks. How many of you want to be waiting for the jury to come back with your sentence & then find they’ve sent out for a Qur’an, or the Law of Manu?

    Doesn’t matter if it’s the Bible or “The DaVinci Code”–if it’s not in the record, the jury doesn’t need to be looking at it.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: The problem with that is that, if they’re religious nuts, then that’s going to factor into their sentencing ANYWAY. I’m not sure why looking something up vice relying on recall matters.

  12. Richard Ames says:

    I wouldn’t pick a potential juror who told me he’d memorized word for word most of the Christian bible, so why should I be okay with a juror who asks for a bible in the deliberation room?

  13. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘I wouldnt pick a potential juror who told me hed memorized word for word most of the Christian bible’

    Why…other than being an anti-religious bigot?