Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Robert Harlan

The Colorado Supreme Court has vacated the death sentence of Robert Harlan and commuted his sentence to life without parole. The Court held that it was improper for several of Harlan's jurors to look up Bible passages regarding an "eye for an eye" and copying them for discussion in deliberations. Colorado law prevents jurors from bringing in any outside material for deliberation.

This ruling has put many "people of faith" up in arms. They claim that jurors should not be required to leave their faith at the door of the jury room, that they should be allowed to consider their moral stand on these questions and should not have to erase from their memory moral teachings. I'm not sure I agree with the principal of that statement. However, regardless of the main concept expressed by challengers to this ruling, the situation here is different. In this case, the jurors did not simply rely on teachings and moral concepts they had developed throughout life. Rather, they copied down Biblical passages and brought them in to share with other jurors. It is possible that some juror who did not share the same moral convictions was influenced by these materials. It is a wholly different situation than a juror who simply quotes the Bible from memory. It has a different strength when its seen in writing...whether the reader would be inclined to believe it as "God's word" or not.

The funny thing about "eye for an eye" is that there are plenty of other passages regarding punishment in the Old Testament portion of the Christian Bible that no one bothers to bring up in today's society. For example, Biblical society stoned adulterers. I wonder how many of the jurors (or lawyers involved) would vote for that punishment. Be consistent; if you are going to advocate death for murderers based on Biblical principals that are seriously outdated (certainly for Christians since Jesus reportedly created a "new covenant" and a "new law"), then you should advocate the other punishments "required" by God in the Old Testament. Of course, as I recall, Jesus also advised a group of angry citizens to think carefully before throwing the first stone on a woman accused of adultery. He advised "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Perhaps consistency is appropriate here as well. I wonder how many of the jurors would have felt comfortable pulling the switch or pushing the buttons. I wonder how many could cast that stone.

I also wonder what the outcry would have been if it had not been the Christian Bible used in deliberations, but instead had been the Koran or perhaps even Buddhist teachings on peace and nonviolence. Would religious and moral teaching have had a place in the jury room then? Or is such teaching only valuable when it comes from the Christian perspective? Of course, portions of the Koran advocate removal of the hands for the crime of theft. Why is that different than "eye for an eye"?

Death sentence by jury that discussed Bible thrown out

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sounds as though the issue is a rule banning the use of any kind of outside material to influence deliberations. That material could have been a study on flaws in the capital punishment system or a nihilistic treatise - just happened to be Scripture in this case - and the folks who want to make it an attack on their faith will use that how they want.

The issue of "outdated" rules is a good one - there are lots of OT requirements that no one follows now. The task is always one of hermaneutics, distilling the eternal truth in a text written thousands of years ago in a desert rural society and applying it to modern life. That is hard work and I have seen it done badly - once saw a pastor twist the NT until he had Jesus saying that the ACLU should stick to the racial concerns of its early days and stay out of school prayer issue.

The other thought is that "eye for an eye" is properly understood as a mitigation, a modification of the existing retributory code which had mandated multiple eyes for one eye, multiple lives for one life.