Monday, October 19, 2009

US Authorities Urged To Overturn Death Sentence After Jury Consulted Bible

US Authorities Urged To Overturn Death Sentence After

Jury Consulted Bible

Jurors read from scripture as they deliberated on

whether Khristian Oliver should be sentenced to death

Chris McGreal

The Guardian

15 October 2009


The Texas jury didn't hesitate to find Khristian Oliver

guilty of shooting and bludgeoning an elderly man to

death. Oliver had stood over his bleeding victim,

repeatedly hitting him in the head with a rifle butt

before robbing his house.


But then came the difficult decision over whether to

sentence Oliver to death, and that's when the Bibles

came into their own.


A clutch of jurors huddled in the corner with one

reading aloud from the Book of Numbers: "The murderer

shall surely be put to death" and "The revenger of blood

himself shall slay the murderer."


Another juror highlighted passages which she showed to a

fellow juror: "And if he smite him with an instrument of

iron, the murderer shall surely be put to death."


Ten years later Oliver, now 32, is just three weeks from

execution. Two appeals courts have rejected his pleas

for the jury's death sentence in 1999 to be overturned

on the grounds it was improperly influenced by

references to the Bible. Some of the jurors have made no

secret of the part their religious beliefs played in

reaching their decision but the US supreme court has

refused to take up a case that has been condemned as "a travesty".


Amnesty International has said the use of biblical

references "to decide life or death in a capital trial

is deeply, deeply troubling" and called on the

authorities in Texas, which has carried out nearly half

of the 39 executions in the US this year, to commute the sentence.


Oliver's lawyers called four members of the jury that

convicted him to testify at an appeal hearing. At the

hearing, one of them, Kenneth McHaney described how

another juror, Kenneth Grace, read the Bible aloud to a

group of jurors.


Donna Matheny showed McHaney a Bible in which she

highlighted passages including one that "says that if a

man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies,

then he is a murderer and should be put to death".


Maxine Symmank told the court that she too had read a

passage from the Book of Numbers: "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."

Another juror, Michael Brenneisen, told a journalist in

2002 that he asked himself "Is this the way the Lord

would decide the case?" But Brenneisen also said that in

discussing the Bible the jury "went both directions in

our use of the scripture - forgiveness and judgement".


McHaney said there were about four Bibles in the jury room.


A Texas state appeal court rejected Oliver's plea to

strike down the sentence because, it said, he had not

"presented clear and convincing evidence" that the Bible

influenced the jury's decision. The court acknowledged

that there was reference to the Bible by the jurors but

said it was not improper. It said "a conscientious,

dedicated" jury was "uninfluenced by any outside

influence of any kind shown to the court in this hearing".


A federal appeal court disagreed, saying that references

to the Bible inside the jury room were improper but it

still refused to overturn the death sentence on the

grounds that Oliver's lawyers had not proved that the

readings influenced the death penalty decision. The

court ruled that the jurors would have applied their own

moral judgements which would, in any case, have been

influenced by their religious beliefs.


Oliver's lawyer until last month, Winston Cochran, said

the rulings are the result of an impossible situation in

which he was prevented at the first appeal hearing from

directly asking the jurors if the Bible readings had an

influence on their decision. The federal court then

turned down a subsequent appeal on the grounds that the

jurors had not explicitly said they were swayed by the Bible.


"We were prohibited from asking the question we were

later being asked to prove," he said.


Cochran also criticised the appeal court view that

jurors were merely applying moral beliefs they already held.


"The problem is there was testimony the Bible was passed

around and shown to people. It was part of the

discussion. It wasn't just used by individuals to

reinforce their existing belief," he said.


With the supreme court refusing to take up Oliver's

case, his remaining options are the Texas board of

pardons and the state governor, Rick Perry. The board of

pardons rarely recommends clemency and Perry is unlikely

to set aside a death sentence in a deeply religious

state on the grounds that jurors referred to the Bible.


Perry has in any case shown no interest in revisiting

controversial death penalty cases. This week he

described a man executed in 2004 for burning his three

children to death as a "monster" despite a growing body

of evidence that he was wrongly convicted on spurious

scientific evidence. Perry described claims that Cameron

Todd Willingham was innocent as anti-death penalty propaganda.


"Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his

three children, who tried to beat his wife into an

abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person

after person has stood up and testified to facts of this

case," he said.


Perry has sacked some members of the Texas Forensic

Science Commission just as they were about to review a

new scientific report highly critical of the evidence

used to convict Willingham. If the commission had

decided the evidence was flawed, it could have led to

the first official admission of a wrongful execution in Texas.


"Getting all tied up in the process here frankly is a

deflection of what people across this state and this

country need to be looking at," Perry said.



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