Jury Consulted the Bible, but Death Sentence Stands

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The federal appeals court in San Francisco yesterday upheld a death sentence from a jury that had consulted the Bible’s teachings on capital punishment.

In a second decision on the role of religion in the criminal justice system, the same court ruled Friday that requiring a former prisoner on parole to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

In the capital case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit split 9 to 6 on the question of whether notes including Bible verses prepared by the jury’s foreman and used during sentencing deliberations required reversal of the death sentence imposed on Stevie L. Fields in 1979.

Mr. Fields, on parole after serving time for manslaughter, committed a series of rapes, kidnappings and robberies, and murdered Rosemary Cobbs, a student librarian at the University of Southern California.

After the jury convicted Mr. Fields and while it was deliberating his sentence, the foreman, Rodney White, conducted outside research, consulting several reference works and preparing a list of pros and cons on the death penalty that he shared with fellow jurors. On the pro side, he quoted passages from the Bible, including this one from Exodus: “He that smiteth a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to death.”

Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, writing for the majority, said there was no need to decide whether there had been juror misconduct, “because even assuming there was, we are persuaded that White’s notes had no substantial and injurious effect or influence.”

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchCapital Punishment

3 Comments
Posted September 11, 2007 at 12:46 pm

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1. William P. Sulik wrote:

I think what the judges here were doing was giving jurors wide latitude in deciding a case.  Judge Pamela Ann Rymer noted that the outcome would’ve been different had it been a prosecutor making the argument.

“Let the reader, where we are equally confident, stride on with me; where we are equally puzzled, pause to investigate with me; where he finds himself in error, come to my side; where he finds me erring, call me to his side. So that we may keep to the path, in love, as we fare on toward Him, ‘whose face is ever to be sought.’”

—Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity 1.5

September 11, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
2. Br_er Rabbit wrote:

From the discussion of AA meetings:

Most other courts that have considered the question of whether prisoners and parolees may be compelled to attend A.A. meetings have come to the same conclusion, usually relying on the program’s invocation of a “higher power.”

I’m not so sure of the accuracy of this “most other courts” statement. A great many AA meetings that I have attended include those who have papers that must be signed certifying that they “were there”, required from their parole or probation officer.

Requiring active participation in a recovery program is a vital tool for the highly successful Drug Courts being operated in many jurisdictions, and AA meetings are the most available (and most economical) resource out there. Perhaps these judges and officers are requiring participation, but not specifying that it has to be AA?

The Rabbit.

September 11, 1:00 pm | [comment link]
3. phil swain wrote:

Ninth Circuit affirms death penalty- man bites dog.

September 11, 2:13 pm | [comment link]


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