Should Bibles be present in a jury deliberation room?

Should Bibles be present in a jury deliberation room?

by Mariah Wojdacz, December 2009

Biblical references are creeping up in the most unexpected of places - soda containers from your favorite fast food hamburger stand or the frappe from your local coffee stand with quotes from scripture. It seems you can find bibles just about everywhere you look including your local motel room. But the buck seems to have stopped at the jury deliberation room. The only question is why?

The hubbub all began roughly two years ago in a Colorado courtroom. A juror was struggling over whether to sentence convicted murderer and rapist Robert Harlan to death. A self-identified Christian, he believed that capital punishment violated his belief system, that is, until fellow Christian juror Lana Ochoa point to passages from Leviticus in her own bible that supported the death penalty for murders. When the district court judge got wind of Ochoa's action, he swiftly tossed out Harlan's death sentence.

According to Ochoa, she believed it was both her right and her duty as a juror to share the Bible verses with other members of the jury pool. In fact, Colorado law explicitly states that jurors are required to consult their "moral compass" in capital felony cases. So the question becomes: how did Ochoa step over the line?

The district court judge vehemently disagreed. According to Judge John J. Virgil, the basic problem was that these Bible passages could influence a juror who might have voted for life imprisonment to vote for the death sentence instead. In other words, she influenced him not with arguments about the evidence but with an outside source that was unrelated to the case.

Colorado is not the first judicial system to face this sort of controversy. Almost six years ago, an Ohio court also reversed a decision they believed was improperly reached by consulting the bible. In that case, lawyers for convicted murderer Elwood Jones petitioned the court to overturn Jones' death sentence on the grounds that the jury consulted scripture.

Unlike the Harlan case, it is unclear whether a Bible was actually present in the Cincinnati, Ohio deliberation room. Rather, a juror relied on their "extensive knowledge of the bible" to persuade two fellow members of the jury to reach their sentencing recommendation. "The juror brought into the jury deliberation room either a Christian Bible or written Bible scriptures to explain to us why this type of sentence was acceptable within our Christian beliefs," said the jurors in a sworn statement.

Jurors are not the only ones rebuked for consulting the Bible. In 1999, an Ohio appellate court reduced the 51-year sentence of convicted rapist James Arnett, because his judge looked to the Bible during sentencing.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argues that the law is very clear on this subject: "This is not Iran, where the civil law of the country is based on anyone's holy scriptures," he says. "So it is legally wrong for jurors to bring in evidence from the Bible."

In fact, it is legally wrong for jurors to bring any outside evidence or sources into the deliberation room. Jury members are not allowed to do their own research or consult their own sources while deliberating cases.

While judges are not allowed to overturn acquittals, they can and do throw out guilty verdicts regularly for a variety of reasons. Although laws vary from state to state, generally judges overturn verdicts when a jury convicts without enough evidence to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt, or when there has been a mistake or wrongdoing by one of the participants or jurors. The recent overturning of the death sentence in Colorado falls under the second category.

Judges can also throw out a verdict if a mistake or malfeasance exists that would prompt a higher court to overturn it. Prosecutors hiding exculpatory evidence, inadequate defense, or incorrect jury instructions provide examples.

But judges overturn or modify jury sentences far more often than they throw out verdicts, especially in capitol cases. In California, seven out of every eight death sentences are overturned or set aside.

So what is to stop judges from overturning sentences to which they are morally opposed? Judicial ethics committees are in place to safeguard against corrupt judges. Additionally, prosecutors can always appeal to a higher court if they suspect the judge's ruling to be unlawful. Voters elect judges in 39 states, and judges who toss out popular verdicts or sentences could pay a high price at the ballot box.

Regardless of their personal beliefs, judges cannot allow juries to break the law. If jurors were allowed to consult outside sources during the deliberation process, nothing would stop them from reading newspapers or watching television coverage of the trial on which they must remain impartial.

However, it is not illegal for jurors to discuss their reasoning with each other. Jurors can make a verbal case supporting their eye-for-an-eye philosophy. They can even quote the Bible or other religious texts from memory. But they simply are not allowed to consult the actual text, nor are they allowed to write down or copy passages. Doing so taints the deliberations according to the law, and essentially ensures a judge will throw out the verdict or the sentence.