Convicted murder Kristian Oliver was a bit put out when he learned that jurors relied not simply on the evidence but biblical passages during their deliberations to convict him. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that the use of a biblical passage in jury deliberations is not enough to warrant reversal of his death sentence.
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found that, while jurors cited the passage, it did not influence the jury’s decision — a rather difficult finding to prove or disprove.
The passage in question is from Numbers:
And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him. Numbers 35:16-19 (King James).
That seems pretty inimical to a fair deliberation based solely on the evidence in the case. Indeed, the opinion itself shows that the reading triggered a more comprehensive discussion of the biblical requirements in dealing with murderers.
One juror, Kenneth Grace, read the Bible aloud to a small group of jurors in the corner of the jury room. McHaney also testified that fellow juror Donna Matheny mentioned to him that the Bible contained a passage discussing who is a murderer and who should be put to death, and that he asked Matheny if he could read her Bible, which Matheny had highlighted. McHaney recalled reading verses pertaining to the importance of obeying the law of the land, the commandment that “thou shalt not kill,” and the passage Matheny pointed out that discussed who is a murderer and who deserves a death sentence. In particular,here called reading a passage that says that if a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, then he is a murderer and should be put to death.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that outside sources used in the jury room are presumptively prejudicial to the proceedings. Parker v. Gladden, 385 U.S. 363, 364-65 (1966) (“the evidence developed against a defendant shall come from the
witness stand in a public courtroom where there is full judicial protection of the
defendant’s right of confrontation, of cross-examination, and of counsel”). Yet, the Ninth Circuit refused to reverse in a similar case, click here.
This case seems to involve a much more serious use of an external religious text than the mere case of a juror taking a Bible into the proceedings as a personal item of support. Here, there was direct consultation that linked passages to the case at hand and the moral basis for the ultimate punishment.
For the opinion, click here