March 29, 2005

Jurors consulting the Bible.

The NYT reports on a Colorado state court opinion that threw out a death sentence because the jurors consulted a Bible. Now, clearly, jurors are not supposed to bring in their own materials, but here they used the Bible in considering moral values after they were given the instruction, required by Colorado law, that each juror should make an "individual moral assessment."
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.

Legal experts said that Colorado was unusual in its language requiring jurors in capital felony cases to explicitly consult a moral compass. ...

"The court says we're asking you to be moral men and women, to make a moral judgment of the right thing to do," said Thane Rosenbaum, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law in New York City, and author of the book "The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What's Right" (HarperCollins, 2004). "But then we say the juror cheated because he brought in a book that forms the basis of his moral universe," Professor Rosenbaum said. "The thing is, he would have done it anyway, in his head."

Other legal experts say the Colorado decision touches on an issue that courts do not like to talk about: that jurors, under traditions dating to the days of English common law, can consider higher authority all they want, and can convict or acquit using whatever internal thoughts and discussions they consider appropriate.

In this instance, lawyers said, there was simply a clearer trail of evidence, with admissions by the jurors during Mr. Harlan's appeal that Bibles had been used in their discussion. One juror testified she studied Romans and Leviticus, including Leviticus 24, which includes the famous articulation of Old Testament justice: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth."...

The Bible is hardly monolithic about what constitutes justice. Some legal experts say the jurors might just as easily have found guidance that led them to vote to spare Mr. Harlan's life. Lawyers for Mr. Harlan also specifically urged the jurors to consider biblical wisdom, according to the Supreme Court's decision, with a request that they find mercy in their hearts "as God ultimately took mercy on Abraham."

The lawyers also made several references to Mr. Harlan's soul and his habit of reading the Bible with his father, the court said....
Most American jurors, I would think, remember "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" along with other Biblical sayings. They are going to think about these moral concepts that have become part of their minds and, unless carefully instructed to refrain from saying such things, they are likely to quote the verses they know. But is an important line crossed when the actual text is seen in the jury room?

I don't have time this morning to read the case, but I'll take a look at it later and update if I can.

UPDATE: Oh, Blogger's been awful today, but finally I can update. I’ve read the case, People v. Harlan, and the key point really is bringing in the text – “extraneous evidence”:
The jury deliberated on the penalty phase late into Friday evening, but did not reach a unanimous verdict. Several jurors studied Bibles Friday night in their hotel rooms, looking for passages relating to capital punishment and a citizen's duty to obey the law, and took notes on the location of particular passages.

Juror Eaton-Ochoa took notes on two passages. The first was Leviticus 24:2021: "fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. And whoever kills an animal shall restore it, but whoever kills a man shall be put to death." The second was 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."

Juror Eaton-Ochoa brought a Bible into the jury room Saturday morning when deliberations resumed. Other jurors testified that more than one juror brought in a Bible, and that one of the Bibles present contained a study index with which a reader could locate passages on particular subjects. Jurors Eaton-Ochoa and Trujillo also brought their notes on biblical passages into the jury room. Juror Eaton-Ochoa showed juror Cordova the Bible text from Leviticus commanding the death penalty for murder, as well as the Romans text. By noon that day, the jury returned a unanimous verdict imposing the death penalty on Harlan.
Thus, it was like earlier cases – one in which jurors looked up the word “burglary” in the dictionary, and another where jurors looked up “Paxil” on the internet. The court was explicit about the distinction between bringing the book into the jury room and holding the same text in one’s head and even quoting it aloud in the jury room:
We do not hold that an individual juror may not rely on and discuss with the other jurors during deliberation his or her religious upbringing, education, and beliefs in making the extremely difficult "reasoned judgment" and "moral decision" he or she is called upon to make in the fourth step of the penalty phase under Colorado law. We hold only that it was improper for a juror to bring the Bible into the jury room to share with other jurors the written Leviticus and Romans texts during deliberations; the texts had not been admitted into evidence or allowed pursuant to the trial court's instructions.

We expect jurors to bring their backgrounds and beliefs to bear on their deliberations but to give ultimate consideration only to the facts admitted and the law as instructed. The judicial system works very hard to emphasize the rarified, solemn and sequestered nature of jury deliberations; jurors must deliberate in that atmosphere without the aid or distraction of extraneous texts that could prejudicially influence the verdict.

The written word persuasively conveys the authentic ring of reliable authority in a way the recollected spoken word does not. Some jurors may view biblical texts like the Leviticus passage at issue here as a factual representation of God's will. The text may also be viewed as a legal instruction, issuing from God, requiring a particular and mandatory punishment for murder. Such a "fact" is not one presented in evidence in this case and such a "legal instruction" is not the law of the state or part of the court's instructions.

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