Jurors Consulted the Bible and a Texan Now Faces the Death Penalty

Khristian Oliver murdered a man in 1999 by shooting him in the face and then beating him with his own rifle. He is scheduled to be put to death on November 5th.

I have no sympathy for him. He should be behind bars for an indefinite amount of time.

But he shouldn’t be put to death. There are a number of reasons capital punishment is wrong, but the particular reason used in this case is especially horrifying:

It later emerged that while deciding whether he should be given the death penalty, jurors consulted the Bible. Four jury members admitted that several copies had been in the jury room and that highlighted passages were passed around.

At one point, a juror reportedly read aloud from a copy, including the passage: “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.”

Defence lawyers argued in appeals that jurors had been improperly influenced by the Bibles but the trial judge rejected the claim, a decision upheld by a Texas appeals court.

If we’re consulting the Bible to decide the fate of criminals (or even the accused), we’re heading down a slippery slope. What’s next? Sentencing homosexuals to death for acting on their sexual preferences?

(And on the flip side, couldn’t they just as easily have cherrypicked the Bible to reduce his penalty and forgive him altogether?)

The Bible is not a good source of morality. That’s obvious. The number of barbaric passages in it are too many to count. We make laws in this country precisely because we have to come up with our own set of guidelines — we can’t get them from other places, certainly not from holy books.

But even if the jurors didn’t have Bibles in the room, resorting to their religious beliefs to decide the case and the penalty would have been equally as misguided. Just like judges, jurors must decide cases based on their own merits and the law of the land. Religion cannot come into play.

(Thanks to everyone for the link.)

  • Geoff

    How can this have got past appeal? Is there a medical abbreviation ‘NfT’ (normal for Texas)?

    I know that this is a commonplace observation, but imagine the furore had the jurors been found to have used the Koran.

  • http://brielle.sosdg.org Brielle

    Texas, where being mentally handicapped is a capital offense!

    One has to wonder why the rest of the country allows Texas to just do its own thing against all common sense and decency.

  • http://craftlass.blogspot.com CraftLass

    Wow, every time I think people have sunk to new religious lows, a story like this pops up.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there supposed to be no materials other than evidence in a jury room? The Bible’s presence at all seems like the first problem.

    And, if I as an atheist get the point that the New Testament (quite clear in it’s anti-execution stance) is supposed to supplant the Old, how is it that Christians ignore this whenever it’s convenient? An old, oft-repeated question, but still a good one that no one has answered to my satisfaction.

    It seems like Jesus would be very disappointed in these people.

  • keddaw

    People should be allowed to bring their ridiculous religious ideas into the jury room if they wish. The fact is we are tried by a jury of our peers and as long as they don’t go outwith the confines of the law then they can decide our fate based on whatever nonsense they with.

    However the appeals court should have picked up on that and thrown it out.

  • Randy

    The thing that makes me wonder is the statement “highlighted passages”. This almost seems as if they were already highlighted and pointing toward execution.

  • Valdyr

    An old, oft-repeated question, but still a good one that no one has answered to my satisfaction.

    I’ve been told that the religious laws of the Old Testament (burnt offerings, shellfish prohibition, not wearing clothes of mixed fibers–basically everything inconvenient) were repealed by Jesus, while the moral (and I use this term loosely) suggestions of the Old Testament remain intact. I have not, however, been told why this means we get to execute murderers, but not adulterers, homosexuals, back-talking children, infidels, and people who get caught having sex with animals.

    Edit: on the subject of moral legislation, am I the only one who finds it funny that the Bible specifically claims that unborn children are not equal to people? There’s a verse in the OT somewhere describing the punishment for a man who induces abortion by attacking a pregnant woman–the act of terminating the fetus only gets you a fine, in itself. Maybe Democrats and Republicans could compromise on an Abortion Tax?

  • TXatheist

    Texas, where too many inbred backwardarse rednecks get to have their opinion and it shows every time we elect a politician like Bush, Perry, John Carter and Dan Patrick. I’m not kidding these guys say “tough on crime” with a solid stance on capital punishment and the majority of Texans support it. I know because even my liberal friends are too often fine with it no matter how many cases I explain were overturned on science.

  • TXatheist
  • Angie

    I certainly hope these jurors never decide on a child sexual abuse case (Leviticus 20:11-12) or a rape case (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 and 22:28-29). The Bible is NOT a document with which we can decide criminal cases.

  • Tony

    TThis is absolutely terrifying. And yes, I am opposed to the death penalty on any grounds. No civilised country should be sanctioning the murder of its citizens.

  • Richard P

    I think they were looking for a way to clear their conscience. When you refer to a higher power, you give up responsibility for your actions. Or rather you do not need to take responsibility. These people can sit back and know they sentenced a man to death, but god said it’s okay.

    I think this is one reason people stay with religion. It is so easy to not hold yourself responsible for your actions when you defer to a god that will forgive anything but not stroking his ego..

    Thanks religion for your contribution to society, once again.

  • Tony

    And, if I as an atheist get the point that the New Testament (quite clear in it’s anti-execution stance) is supposed to supplant the Old, how is it that Christians ignore this whenever it’s convenient?

    There are a couple of suitably vague passages from Jesus. The one which apparently cancels dietary prohibitions is:

    And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. — Mark 7:18-20

    And the one which suggests that all of the Old Testament rules apply is:

    Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. — Matthew 5:17

    This is perfect, because it enables Christians to literally pick and choose which parts of the bible support their position, regardless of what it is.

  • Tony Boling

    Am I going to have to be the one that says it???

    The title of this post is “Jurors Consulted the Bible and a Texan Now Faces the Death Penalty” when it should read “Man shoots other man in face, bludgeons him to death and now faces the death penalty”

    Yes it’s dumb that they were given a Bible with a “relevent” verse highlighted, but it doesn’t hide the fact that someone did something utterly inhumane and is being punished well within the letter of the law.

    There, I said it.

  • Price

    I don’t get it. He killed someone but you believe he dose NOT deserve death as well. He should spend the rest of his life in prison on the taxpayers dime? The punishment fits the crime. How is there a problem? Don’t get me wrong, the fact they consulted a Bible is idiotic, and Capital punishment is a lousy deterent (however, Prison Rape is a GREAT deterent). But, he did kill someone, it seems only right to kill him back. How hard is that to understand?

  • CatBallou

    Tony, Price, entire books have been written on this topic. Courses taught. Debates held. And you come here with apparently no knowledge, and expect people to explain it to you?
    Maybe someone will. I don’t know. But you certainly haven’t demonstrated any nuanced understanding of the issues.
    And prison rape, Price? Really? The appropriate punishment for any crime for which someone is imprisoned is rape? Barbaric.

  • TXatheist

    Price, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. The man was ignorant and barbaric and that doesn’t mean the state can be too in my mind but some people think that’s justice.

  • Brad

    Your great nation was founded on the Bible and the judeo-Christian ethic. You get rid of that at your own peril, for it is the foundation of your nation, and when you remove the foundation, the building collapses.

  • Tony Boling

    I have to assume CatBallou is talking about me (couple different Tony’s here).

    I don’t need you to explain anything to me at all. My comment was less about the morality of capital punishment and more about how the story was presented on an atheist blog. You can argue the morality of the death penalty til the cows come home on a crime & punishment blog. My comment was in response to this story in the frame of a church and state issue.

    The dude was getting the death penalty whether that Bible was presented to the jurors or not. Texas has condemned more people for much less.

    For the record though I am pro capital punishment but only in cases where the guilt is clear and it was a particularly violent crime. I’d rather not pay to house, feed, clothe, entertain and provide medical benefits that are better than a sizable chunk of the US to animals such as Oliver for the rest of their lives. It’s not out of justice or retribution that I believe this, but purely economic.

  • Angie

    I know I shouldn’t feed the trolls, but I can’t help myself.

    Your great nation was founded on the Bible and the judeo-Christian ethic.

    No, Brad, it was founded on DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES. Take the time to read the Constitution, and you’ll find (1) no references to the Bible or Christianity, and (2) a clearly-stated separation of church and state. I’m getting tired of fundamentalist Christians re-imagining American history to suit their theocratic ambitions.

    You get rid of that at your own peril, for it is the foundation of your nation, and when you remove the foundation, the building collapses.

    You can’t get rid of something that was never there in the first place. As I stated above, the U.S. was founded on democratic values, not religious ones, and it’s been okay for over two-hundred years.

    Please tell me this whole thing has been a Poe…

  • Justin jm

    Hey Brad, would you like to tell that to Bush and Cheney? I think they forgot to do the first step and skipped right to messing up.

  • JulietEcho

    @ Tony B
    The issue, technically, is with Bibles being allowed in jury deliberation (and *highlighted* Bibles to boot!) when nothing else is allowed besides case evidence. It’s giving an odd, special privilege to the Bible where no such privilege exists for other literature in a deliberation room.

    I’m sure that there are plenty of people and groups who would love to put their own books and literature at the disposal of juries on important cases, but that doesn’t mean that we should let them – or that those contributions would be somehow helpful in making our system more just. The Bible shouldn’t be allowed in the process either. End of story.

  • Tony Boling

    @JulietEcho

    You are absolutely right! However the article seemed to gloss over that and move into a capital punishment debate.

    Also I still have issues with the title “Jurors Consulted the Bible and a Texan Now Faces the Death Penalty”

    It sort of implies there’s no guilt on the part of Oliver and the ONLY reason he’s facing the death penalty is due to the Bible.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    At least the cost of execution is low in Texas. Just get everyone to pick up a rcok and stone the guy as g0d intended.

  • muggle

    I sit on the fence about capital punishment. Every time I think I’ve made up my mind, someone gives me a convincing argument from the other side of it. (Before anyone screams about that statement, I can’t support it when I remain so undecided about it. It’s too big a step to make if at all wishy-washy about it.)

    However, no case should be decided on the Bible, no matter how big or small.

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  • http://www.houseofzot.com Zotmaster

    There’s a quote from someone in particular that I like to bring up whenever a Christian argues that our country was founded based on the Bible and Christian principles:

    “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.” – Thomas Jefferson

    I admit that I wasn’t there, but I would assume that Thomas Jefferson would know: I mean, after all, he was one of the framers of the Constitution!

    Reading the original Telegraph article, there is one point in particular where I think the whole story descends into complete stupidity:

    However, a federal appeals court ruled last year that while the Bible should not have been allowed into the deliberation room at Oliver’s trial, there was no clear evidence to indicate they had influenced the jurors’ decision.

    So wait. They passed it around…they quoted passages from it…one even went so far as to quote a passage regarding retribution as a means to justify the death penalty…and yet they were not influenced by the Bible? I admit that I’m not the best when it comes to legal wrangling, but when you use something to influence your decision, doesn’t that mean it influenced your decision?

    Though I obviously don’t condone murder, I do hope that eventually this case finds the attention of someone in a position of authority who actually knows the laws of this country so that it can actually be handled in a proper, legal manner.

  • Tony Boling

    @muggle

    I do not for one second believe that case was decided on the bible. The guy shot and bludgeoned his victim. Bible or not, he was going down.

    The title falls prey to the logical fallacy of confusing association with causation.

    Oliver isn’t being put to death because the jurors saw a bible passage….he’s being put to death for murdering a guy.

  • pete

    Brad says..”Your great nation was founded on the Bible and the judeo-Christian ethic.”

    Kinda gives me more understanding of why and how this world has often become such a widespread ignorant nasty and uncaring place,when you remind us how much these ugly beliefs have been present.But as others have pointed out they just poked their noses in alot!,were not at all often what we were founded on.

    I really dislike hearing about folks killing each other in fact i even really hate it,but without knowing all the details and without looking to excuse anything we still need to remember and try to understand dont we? that society as it exists often plays at least some part in what people become.Another thing with death penalities is a number of people have been put to death in the past while actually being innocent.

  • JulietEcho

    Well, the title encourages our natural tendency to infer causation from correlation. The title used “and” not “because” and is factually true. The jurors did indeed consult the Bible and the man is now facing the death penalty.

    The reason I’m defending the title is because I think that there’s power (being put to good use) in it – it communicates the two central components of this article. To lengthen it considerably, “In a horrible breach of legal ethics, authorities allowed a Texas jury to consult the Bible – a much-lauded book that many people take more seriously than any other – while they were deciding a murder case, AND those same jurors essentially condemned that murderer to death.”

    To translate some subtext: “Something very inappropriate happened in that jury room AND the results are still being used in a way that will lead to the permanent death of a human being.” Additionally, “Those jurors obviously found nothing in that Bible that convinced them that capital punishment is unethical, AND a man is now going to die.

    Could the headline have been better? Sure. But I think it gets the job done without distorting the facts. Yes, it (like way too many headlines) encourages our wont for assuming causation, but that’s something that every rational person has to keep in check constantly.

  • Bobby

    As for the law (another inexact, often misguided man-written creed, but at least we lawyers acknowledge some of its shortcomings) a mistrial should be called and it’s legal error not to call one (i.e. arguable on appeal) when a juror/jury resorts to external influences not presented at trial.

    I would have thought the Bible is external influence, and, if it made available during deliberation, should likely have resulted in at least a new trial for sentencing, if not a new trial entirely. However, seems the US Supreme Court decided not to take up the case–which isn’t to say Texas was right–but it seems like this isn’t a religion separation or establishment case, so much as it is a case about what types of external influence (and what amount of jury misconduct) is required to require a mistrial.

  • Twin-Skies

    Personally, I think convicted murders, rapists and kidnappers shouldn’t be given the chair – they should be shot where they stand.

    But that’s probably because nobody here in my country ever seems to stay in jail too long – convicted kidnap/rapist/murderer here was recently expatriated to a Spanish prison due to his family connections.

    Similarly, the kidnappers who were responsible for bringing much suffering to a close member of my family are partly still at large.

    Even the police who handled the case said in private conversation they’d rather shoot them on sight, given most of the perps they arrested were eventually released due to an incredibly corrupt legal system.

    The way I see it, you keep a hardened criminal in life imprisonment, you’re just giving him more opportunity to escape.

    But in this case, resorting to the bible to condemn a man to death? That’s just one major mind-fuck.

    You might as well ask the jury to whip out a Harry Potter book, and Avada Kedavra the poor schmuck.

    On second thought, I’d love to see that happen.

  • Valdyr

    Personally, I think convicted murders, rapists and kidnappers shouldn’t be given the chair – they should be shot where they stand.

    How many accidental summary executions of innocent suspects would be acceptable to you? No need for a specific number, just give us a ballpark. 5% of all those accused? 10%?

    Do you also agree with US Supreme Court Justice Scalia that death row inmates who are exonerated by new evidence should still be executed anyway?

  • Brian E

    I’m with Tony B on this…capital punishment for the most heinous, and clear-cut guilty crimes. The link Hemant provided was for a case where no body was found; I wouldn’t support the death penalty when that type of ambiguity exists. But I think it’s incorrect to completely discount the death penalty as ‘barbaric’; one could easily make the argument that locking someone up in a cell for the remainder of their life is equally barbaric, especially when you examine the conditions of our prison system.

  • Valdyr

    If someone is imprisoned, there’s still a chance that they can be exonerated if they’re actually innocent. People who are against capital punishment, like me, believe that even one innocent person being executed would be a tragedy and a failure of the state of such a magnitude as to be almost incomprehensible.

    The most common argument for capital punishment, that it costs money to imprison people for long periods of time, is shot down by the fact that all the appeals made by a death-row inmate and the costs of the execution itself almost always exceed the amount it would take to keep them alive. Of course, the pro-capital punishment person could say, “Then we should limit the number of appeals, or eliminate the process altogether”, which only further increases the likelihood of someone innocent being executed.

    This argument, as well as its rebuttal, kind of sidesteps what I feel is an important point, though: the idea of killing someone to just to save money is positively ghastly, no matter what they’ve been accused of.

  • TXatheist

    Since we are on the subject let me ask freethinkers this. I am writing a death row inmate. He was convicted and sentenced to death because the guy with him had a gun and that guy killed someone. Does the 2nd guy I’m writing to deserve the death penalty when there was no plan for them to be caught stealing a car nor talk of shooting anyone???

  • Brian E

    TXatheist: I say no; he didn’t do the crime. He’s still guilty as an accomplice, but not eligible for the death penalty.

  • Twin-Skies

    @Valdyr

    I was talking in the context of my country’s own courts, in light of this incident some months ago.

    http://globalnation.inquirer.net/news/breakingnews/view/20090912-224833/DFA-defends-rapists-transfer-to-Spain-jail

    The clincher here is that Larranaga is affiliated with a particularly powerful political clan in the provinces who are closely associated with the Arroyo administration.

    I wasn’t just Larranaga who got off scott free because of his political connections.

    A few years before that, former congressman Romero Jalosjos, jailed for 16 years for raping a 10-year old child, was suddenly released under a presidential pardon.

    His release was highly controversial in nature due to his allegiance to the RP’s current president, Gloria Arroyo. Shortly after his release, Jalosjos had shown no remorse for his crime, and is now running once back in his old congressional post.

    You will argue that there will be innocents who may be wrongfully accused who are on death row. I won’t argue against that.

    My point is that once the convict has been thoroughly proven guilt beyond reasonable doubt for the crime I have said earlier, I strongly believe they should be dealt with as soon as possible.

    Me – along with a good number of my countrymen – are quite sick of seeing dirtbags like Larranaga and Jalosjos getting away from their punishment with no apparent remorse for the misery they imposed on their victims.

    If they refuse to show remorse, and if they’re just going to be released again and again thanks to their associates, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t get rid of them.

    On a last note, the family member I remarked that was kidnapped was my dad. So yes, I admit there is a very personal reason for being pro-death.

    With election season just around the corner, my country will be seeing a lot more kidnappings, by perps closely affiliated with one politico after another.

    I honestly do know that a death penalty is morally wrong. The problem is that when your courts won’t properly punish the criminals and constantly releases them, which in turn leads to more innocent people getting hurt, what do you expect us to do?

    Call it a combination of anger and frustration.

    Just to be clear that I don’t hold anything against you Valdyr, I do think your stance on the matter is solid.

    I’m just really pissed at the moment. Joseph Estrada has just announced his bid to re-run for the presidency after his impeachment eight years ago.

  • Aaron

    Brad:

    Exactly which Judeo-Christian principles was American founded on?

  • DTA

    Couldn’t they just kill a goat in his place? There’s precedent! *flips further through the bible* See??

  • Kelly

    Texas smokes a huge crack rock of stupidity.

    At least my state, West Virginia, doesn’t have the death penalty. West Virginia has its problems, like it mostly hates gay people like me, but the shortcomings of my state do not compare to those of the Lone Star State.

    Texas must be a very scary place to live. The Texas government relishes in killing people and hates science. *brr*


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