after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Texas execution and the Bible

Posted by c. wagner on November 10, 2009

Texas (“Famous for Executions”) killed another man November 5. I’m not bringing this up because there was evidence the guy was innocent (haven’t heard of any) or because I have a serious problem with the death penalty (I do), but because of how jurors arrived at his sentence. The jury consulted the Bible to choose the sentence for the convicted murderer.

And what passage out of all of the Bible did the jurors close in on? Not the bit about “turning the other cheek”. Not the bit about “forgiving seven times 70 times”. Not the bit about casting the first stone. Nooooo. They picked Numbers chapter 35, verse 16:

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.

That’s right. They chose the death penalty, not necessarily because of the nastiness of the crime (a shooting during a burglary), but because a line of the Bible said it was the fitting penalty for killing someone with “an instrument of iron”, like a gun.

One of the jurors was interviewed later by a Danish reporter.

He told the journalist he believed “the Bible is truth from page 1 to the last page”, and that if civil law and biblical law were in conflict, the latter should prevail. He said that if he had been told he could not consult the Bible, “I would have left the courtroom”.

I’m officially terrified. Where is my separation of church and state? Why didn’t this get thrown out on appeal? Is there a loophole here that I don’t know about?

I’m also glad that I don’t live in Texas. Of course, I was already glad about that.

Read the article from Amnesty International.

3 Responses to “Texas execution and the Bible”

  1. jonolan said

    There are a couple of things at play here:

    1 – Jurors aren’t the State; there member of we, the Poeple, and enjoy religious freedom. Frankly the whole point of trial by jury is that they’re not the State.

    2 – In TX the jury must recommend the death penalty before the judge can even consider sentencing a felon to death, but there are no guidelines by which means the jury can or should derive their recommendation. It’s completely subjective and deliberately so because it is such a singular and subjective decision.

    They could have just as easily and legally chosen The Origin of Species and thereby decided that the felon needed to be culled from the gene pool.

    • Thanks for the explanation. I (obviously) hadn’t thought of that. But there seems to be a problem with both of our arguments. You’re right about the church and state issue, but there’s still something wrong with consulting some outside sources during deliberations.

      In 2008, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the jurors had “crossed an important line” by consulting specific passages in the Bible that described the very facts at issue in the case. This amounted to an “external influence” on the jury prohibited under the US Constitution.

      However, it concluded that under the “highly deferential standard” by which federal courts should review state court decisions, Oliver had failed to prove that he had been prejudiced by this unconstitutional juror conduct. In April 2009, the US Supreme Court refused to take the case, despite being urged to take it by nearly 50 former US federal and state prosecutors. [From Amnesty International]

      And I’m still, personally, very, very frightened by the idea that someone could possibly use a book supporting their personal religious beliefs in deciding how to punish me for some transgression, rather than looking solely at the evidence and the law.

      (I also am required to say that Darwin’s big idea was natural selection, whereby adaptations to the environment make it more or less likely that an individual will survive to reproduce. A human making a decision based on creating a desired outcome to cull a life form is selective breeding. Which has been around since animals and plants were domesticated. Applying selective breeding to human populations (eugenics) is also much older than Darwin, going back to at least Plato, who thought that the State should control reproduction to improve the human race.)

      • jonolan said

        The case your citing involved a verdict, not a sentencing. That’s an important legal distinction. There is no legal standard for how a jury can arrive at a sentencing recommendation so it cannot be based solely at the evidence and the law. How could there be, especially in death penalty cases?

        LOL I mentioned Darwin’s work for two reasons: it’s the penultimate “secular” work these days and so made a good counterpoint to the Bible, and that the jurors could have decided that the felons genes needed to be scrubbed from gene pool for the sake of future generation. 😉

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