Monday, March 28, 2005

Interestingly Enough

a Colorado court has reduced the sentence of a convicted kidnapper/rapist/murderer from the death penalty, imposed by the jury in the case, to life imprisonment. The court ruled that because they found that jurors consulted the Bible when debating whether to apply the death penalty in this case, their recommendation was suspect enough to be discounted. First of all, one fewer person is getting the death penalty which is good. (Although don't be surprised to find this case in the Supreme Court with Sandra Day O'Conner casting the deciding vote. I can see it now, a well-written, outrageous, strict-constructionalist opinion authored by Reinquist, joined by Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas, a well-written, loose-constructionalist opinion authored by Stevens, joined by Brennen, Souter, and Ginsberg, and a ridiculious, "I wanna toe some sort of middle ground here but, fuck, I've got to vote" milquetoast opinion vomited onto a page by O'Conner. The old bitch.)

Two things jump out at me about this case. While I haven't read the actual opinion of the 3 judges who voted to reduce the sentence, it seems to me that their reasoning has to include something about how the jurors used the Bible in making a legal judgement. For example, the requirement for the death penalty in California is Murder 1 plus a special circumstance (murder in the commission of a felony, murder in a particularly violent/sick fashion, murder for hire, cannabilism, etc.) If the jurors used the Bible to determine that, while there was no special circumstance present, this legal nicety was trumped by the Biblical aphorism of "an eye for an eye," and therefore this murderer deserved to die, then the judges are completely correct in their ruling.

On the other hand, generally jurors are allowed an extraordinary amount of leeway in reaching their decisions. A jury is a representative sample of the population selected to render a binding judicial decision to the best of its members' abilities. They are obviously to be guided in this by a judge who is able to explain the law to them, and the evidence presented at trial. Nonetheless, juries have been known to find defendents guilty on evidence and not guilty on principle. Hence, if the jurors decided that legally the defendent qualified for the death penalty, they're still empowered not to sentence death if they feel there are non-legal reasons not to. Enter the realm of morality. Jurors for potential death-penalty cases are disallowed if they feel they would be unable to vote for the death penalty under any circumstances. (This is ridiculious, as this type of juror is inherently more likely to vote for a conviction, and because a person can be disallowed from civic duty for holding a particular political belief, but that's neither here, nor there, nor anywhere.) If the jury decided on legal grounds that the defendent qualified for the death penalty, and then included Scripture in their discussion of the morality of imposing capital punishment, despite my ardent belief in the separation of church and state, and my hatred of religion in general, and religion in government in particular, I would have to conclude that the judges ruled wrongly. Each juror in the case has the right to make a personal decision based on legal factors, yes, but also moral factors should they have their legally constituted place. The right of jurors to use religion as a guide for moral decisions should not be infringed upon, as it would be a textbook violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.

2 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

I disagree about the legitimacy of using religion to guide you. If they want to change the law to closer reflect Christian morality, fine. But under the current laws, every decision should be based on whether the evidence was met for a conviction and whether the case meets the necessary circumstances for applying the death penalty as defined by law.

Similarly, the laws should be changed to disallow the death penalty rather than just having some people who don't agree with it choose to not use it.

Hate to sound like Bush with the idea of "activist juries" but i happen to think "activist juries" are not good even if I personally disagree with the letter of the law.

3/29/2005 12:41 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I disagree about the legitimacy of using religion to guide you. If they want to change the law to closer reflect Christian morality, fine. But under the current laws, every decision should be based on whether the evidence was met for a conviction and whether the case meets the necessary circumstances for applying the death penalty as defined by law.

Similarly, the laws should be changed to disallow the death penalty rather than just having some people who don't agree with it choose to not use it.

Hate to sound like Bush with the idea of "activist juries" but i happen to think "activist juries" are not good even if I personally disagree with the letter of the law.

3/29/2005 12:57 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home