30 March 2005

Bibles during juries' deliberations: People vs. Harlan

The Colorado State Supreme Court Monday upheld a lower court's ruling, reversing the 1995 sentence of Robert Harlan who was convicted of raping and murdering one woman and crippling another. He had been sentenced to death; the Supreme Court found that the jury's deliberations were problematic, and changed his sentence to life in prison without parole.

In general I support courts who reverse capital punishment sentences. Even in cases of rape and murder, I don't support the death sentence. I expect to write more about such issues here as this blog progresses --- questions surrounding the death penalty are central to the areas of ethics I'd like to discuss --- but what's interesting about this case is the argument through which the Court denied the execution. (As an aside, I'd like to mention that if given the choice between life in prison without parole and execution, I'd pick execution. I think that all people should be given personal choice over whether to live.)

Among other jobs of the Colorado Supreme Court is to review death penalty convictions. When they reviewed the case, they were troubled by a number of jurors who, during jury selection, said that they supported capital punishment for all first-degree murder convictions. Colorado law does not require that sentence, and the judge made it clear to the jurors that they were not to consider any information other than that which was presented in the courtroom, and that they are to follow the laws as interpreted by the judge, whether they agree with them or not. Of course, when considering sentencing, jurors must make "individual moral assessments", but a death sentence must be unanimous, and based on the facts and arguments presented in the courtroom. Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected Harlan's allegations of racial bias, and despite reservations upheld his sentencing.

As Harlan sat on death row, his lawyers continued to investigate the verdict, and interviewed five jurors. They had been deliberating without a decision on Friday (of whatever week), and recessed for the night. Upon returning to their rooms, at least one of the jurors studied the Judeo-Christian Bible, and highlighted a few passages relating to the death penalty. Upon returning to deliberations, she (and maybe others) brought her Bible with her, and pointed out these passages to a fellow juror, as part of convincing her to vote for a death sentence. It's that action, it seems, that made the Supreme Court reverse its earlier decision and find that the original sentencing was in error.

I think the New York Times' coverage of this case is a little misleading. It's not just that referencing the Bible isn't allowed --- Harlan's lawyers talked about the Bible, and certainly as a juror I should be allowed to base part of my "individual moral assessment" on the Bible if that forms part of my "individual morality". The problem is that the aid of outside influences like the Bible (which does not accurately interpret Colorado law) might prejudice jurors towards a ruling they wouldn't otherwise make. In this case, that was the finding of the majority.

The dissent, of course, dissents. Rice writes
Since inquiry into the jury’s deliberations is prohibited except to determine whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jurors’attention, CRE 606(b), we would ordinarily assess the impact of the extraneous information by considering its likely impact on a"typical"jury. See, e.g., People v. Wadle, 97 P.3d 932, 935 (Colo. 2004). However, in this case, each of the twelve jurors testified not only about whether extraneous information was brought into the jury room, but also about what impact, if any, the presence of a Bible in the jury room had on those deliberations. As a result, there is no need to assess the impact of the biblical passages on a "typical"jury. Rather, we know from the sworn testimony of the jurors themselves that not even one of the jurors was influenced by these biblical passages to vote for the death penalty, and thus, the biblical passages were not prejudicial to Harlan. Even so, I also am certain that there is no reasonable possibility that a typical jury would be prejudiced by exposure to the biblical passages at issue here.
(my italics). Of course, many jurors were informed by their study of the Bible, just as many individuals base their ethics in part on the Bible, so I take the passage to mean that no one was further influenced by the bibles' presence in the room. (This quote, and in fact the Court's entire opinion, are available on the Colorado Bar Association's website under No. 03SA173. People v. Harlan.)

It's not clear to me what to make of the majority's position. I understand their arguments: the law is very clear that jurors are not to bring in any "extraneous information" except for "common knowledge", and these bibles may have unfairly prejudiced people, and come dangerously close to being an extralegal justice code. Besides, the Court was already nervous about this sentencing for a number of reasons, and this might have been enough of a straw to break the figurative camel's back. Besides, I should be happy about any time a Court stays an execution, right?

And yet, I worry that this ruling sets a dangerous precedent, dissuading jurors from thinking about religious morals. If we are to trust our jurors to make "individual moral assessments" at all, it seems that we have to allow them to draw guidance from religious texts (even if, in this case, I think they misinterpreted it). And I very much hope I can trust people, and especially jurors, to make generally good moral decisions.

One of my roommates expressed the broader issue well. Should a jury be understood as a sample of the population, in which case we should encourage jurors to explore their individual moral codes, or should a jury speak for the entire population (and its democratically constructed government and laws), in which case it seems more reasonable to ask jurors to keep their deliberations strictly to the laws and facts as presented in the courtroom?

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