Bibles, Jurors Don't Mix

Bible, Religion, Christianity, Christian
There is plenty of irony in the Bible. And there is plenty of irony in the story of Robert Harlan's jurors and the Bible. Those jurors who wanted to see the murderer sentenced to death so badly that they were willing to disobey the judge to do so actually ended up saving Harlan's life.

Harlan, a rapist, kidnapper and killer, now can thank those jurors for the next 50 years or so he'll have on this planet. And they in turn can think back on what might have been had they not been so zealous in their pursuit of a capital sentence against him. If the story didn't happen in real time -- over eight tortuous years -- one might have thought it was plucked from the New Testament itself. Judge not, lest ye be judged, right?

Adams County District Judge John Vigil ruled Friday that Harlan's death sentence for the 1994 murder of Rhonda Maloney must be set aside because his jurors impermissibly consulted Bibles during the sentencing phase of his trial. More specifically, the judge applied the current legal standard in Colorado and found after an evidentiary hearing that there was a "reasonable possibility that extraneous information or influence affected the verdict" against Harlan.

To support his ruling, Judge Vigil cited Colorado precedent reversing criminal convictions in a handful of cases where jurors used during deliberations a dictionary, an Internet search, a medical textbook and Black's Law Dictionary -- despite judicial admonitions against such outside-the-court quest for knowledge. There are plenty of federal cases, too, that make it quite clear that religion in general, and the Bible in particular, has no place in the jury room. Even the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country, ruled a few years ago that the Bible couldn't be used to justify the morality of the death penalty.

Despite what shrieking talk show hosts were saying Friday evening, then, this case was not a close call. Jurors in capital cases are supposed to act as the moral conscience of their community. And they are permitted to bring with them into the deliberation room whatever religious or spiritual beliefs they may have. That's what voir dire is for -- to permit the judge, and sometimes the attorneys themselves, to ask potential jurors whether their religious beliefs may interfere with their ability to follow the judge's instructions as to the law of the case. But using your own personal religious beliefs as a moral compass to guide your decision in a capital case is one thing; using the Bible as an offensive weapon to cajole fellow jurors into voting for death is another.

Harlan's jurors (some of them, anyway) didn't just read the Good Book before they went to sleep in their hotel rooms while sequestered during the case. And they didn't just cite from memory Biblical passages they might have learned earlier in their lives. They brought at least one Bible into the deliberation room itself and also brought "notes with biblical passages concerning the penalty for murder," according to Judge Vigil. In flagrant disregard for the judge's instructions, these jurors relied upon this extra-judicial authority in order to convince at least one "wavering" juror that a death sentence for Harlan would make them right with God. And they did so, at least some of them anyway, knowing that their reliance upon the Bible at that point in their deliberations could result in a reversal of Harlan's sentence.

Moreover, Vigil noted, "the biblical passages involved not only encouraged the death penalty but required that it be imposed when another life is taken. The passages also directed jurors to take guidance from and obey the government. They left jurors with no discretion." And not surprisingly, the judge added, the passages -- cited "fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth …. whoever kills a man shall be put to death. … I will use you as a tool and if a man take a life, then his life shall be taken…" -- happen to contradict in enormous ways Colorado's death penalty law. Suffice to say, the law in Colorado permits less barbarism and requires more a personalized judgment before a death sentence can be recommended by jurors.

If the general lesson of this episode is that religion and law don't mix, the specific lesson is that we sometimes misplace the trust we give to jurors and the faith we put into judicial officials to make sure things work well behind the scenes in a criminal case. Judge Vigil found that "the jury supervision performed in this case was extremely negligent and appallingly lax … no steps were taken to insure that jurors were not exposed to the extraneous information and outside influences that they were exposed to here."

So the bailiffs blew it. The Harlan case ought to remind court personnel around the country that it's better to be too thorough than not thorough enough when shielding capital jurors from temptation. And I suspect there won't be any more Gideon Bibles in any more hotel rooms used by sequestered jurors in Colorado or anywhere else. But the jurors blew it, too. If they thought they could get away with it here on Earth -- and, apparently, they did, otherwise they wouldn't have done it -- weren't they at least worried about the potential ramifications for their Hereafter? I mean, it's one thing to sneak a Bible past a snoozing bailiff. It's another thing to pull one over on the Lord.

So Harlan, the merciless killer, now may not receive what he truly deserves for his crimes. But his jurors certainly got what they deserved -- a painful but apparently necessary reminder that in our courts we turn to the Constitution and not the Bible when we are looking for answers. Add in the fact that, in the end, it was the Bible that both condemned and saved Harlan and, well, you get yet another irony that's part of this sad story.

By Andrew Cohen

  • David Hancock On Google+»

    David Hancock is a home page editor for