A narrow court ruling in Colorado should give pause to anyone who may one day sit on a jury and cast a vote based on his or her values.
Potential jurors are thoroughly questioned during jury selection as to what values they possess and what impact those values may have on their ability to decide cases. While jurors must consider only the evidence in deciding whether to convict, subsequent deliberations over what sentence should be imposed should be based on societal values as well as on the law and the precise elements of the crime.
And so the Colorado Supreme Court was wrong to declare Monday that jurors should not have read verses from the Bible about the death penalty in the jury room before agreeing on a sentence for defendant Robert Harlan.
Harlan was convicted in 1994 of the rape and murder of a 25-year-old woman. As the Associated Press reported Tuesday, five jurors had looked up Bible verses — including those in Leviticus referring to "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" — copied them and discussed them during closed deliberations.
Does the Colorado high court’s 3-2 ruling represent a decline in emphasis on moral values by the judiciary? That’s unclear. It may well have been, as the Denver Post reported Tuesday, an emphasis on strict rules of evidence over the right to express one’s religious beliefs.
An attorney for Harlan quoted by the AP said the jurors went to the Bible "to find out God’s position on capital punishment." If that were true, it would have made little difference if jurors had simply quoted the Bible verses from memory instead of copying them down.
The Post quoted Denver attorney Michael J. Norton, who is affiliated with the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal group. "The presence of a Bible is only one step removed from the presence of a person’s memory of the verse of the Bible," Norton told the Post. "I think it’s a distinction without a difference . . . It is quite insulting to people of faith."
Norton said that those who read the Bible verses did so to convince a reluctant juror that religion was not a bar to a death sentence — that is, that this juror should follow the law.
While jurors should be required to set aside prejudices that could impede their ability to render verdicts that hew to the law and to the facts of the case, they must not be required to leave their moral values outside the courthouse.