Death Row Inmate Argues That Prosecution Favored Mormon Jurors, ‘Blood Atonement’

A Utah man convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death has appealed his conviction, arguing in part that potential jurors were discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

Von Lester Taylor - Utah Department of Corrections

 

After Von Lester Taylor pled guilty to murdering a mother and her daughter, a jury sentenced him to death.  Taylor now claims that one juror should have been disqualified due to his belief in “blood atonement” and that the entire jury selection process was invalid because evidence suggests the prosecution was deliberately excluding jurors who were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The Supreme Court of Utah ultimately held Taylor should have raised these claims earlier in the appeals process and that, because Taylor provided no valid reason for his delay, it is now too late for the court to consider the claims.

Even though the decision focuses on procedure rather than on religion, the case poses some really interesting questions:

First, the blood atonement issue.  Blood atonement is generally understood as the belief that murder is so atrocious that it can only be forgiven if the murderer’s blood is shed.  In a murder trial such as Taylor’s, this seems problematic: Does this mean the juror would only feel comfortable sentencing a murderer to death, rather than some lesser punishment like life in prison?

In Taylor’s case, the answer happened to be no, as the Supreme Court of Utah held in an earlier appeal that the juror “believed the doctrine of blood atonement referred to the Christian belief that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and not to the principle that anyone who kills must be killed,” and the juror believed “there may be circumstances in which a defendant who deliberately killed another person might not deserve the death penalty.”

But what if the answer had been yes?  What if the juror believed that the only acceptable punishment for murder was death?  Certainly it would not be fair for the defendant to be sentenced by this juror, as the juror’s sentence recommendation might always be death, regardless of the circumstances.

Which leads to another interesting question: Can attorneys reject jurors on the basis of their religion?  When selecting a jury for trial, attorneys are allowed to exclude potential jurors because, for example, there is good reason to believe the juror would not be able to be fair (that would be “for cause” exclusion).  Attorneys are also allowed a certain number of peremptory challenges, which they may use to exclude potential jurors that they simply don’t care for.  In Batson v. Kentucky (1986), however, the Supreme Court held “the Equal Protection Clause forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race or on the assumption that black jurors as a group will be unable impartially to consider the State’s case against a black defendant.”

Does this prohibition extend to religion?  Religion, like race, carries a lot of import in this country.  If attorneys can’t exclude jurors on the basis of their race, then must they also be neutral with respect to religion?  Taylor himself complains that the prosecutor unfairly excluded non-Mormons, even though Taylor wanted the blood atonement juror excluded on the basis of a religious belief.

When I first read this case, my gut reaction was that Taylor was right (if the facts were exactly as he claimed them to be): A juror who believes in blood atonement should be excluded, yet prosecutors should not be able to favor Mormons in the jury selection process.  But how is this legally defensible, as both involve discriminating on the basis of religion?

This question has not been answered by the United States Supreme Court, but a case out of the Tenth Circuit suggests a resolution.  In U.S. v. Prince (2011), the Tenth Circuit explained there is a difference between religious belief and religious affiliation.  A prosecutor may strike a potential juror on the basis of religious belief (like the belief in blood atonement), but may not strike a potential juror on the basis of religious affiliation (like not being Mormon).  The court explains a prosecutor “may undoubtedly strike a juror for being unwilling to sit in judgment of another human being, but he may not infer solely from a prospective juror’s race, gender, or religion that he will be unwilling to sit in judgment of another, and then offer that unwillingness as a permissible basis for a peremptory challenge.”

Here, the existing law lines up quite nicely with my visceral reaction to the facts of the case.  What was your visceral reaction to these facts?  If you were on trial, who would you want excluded from your jury, and why?

About katherine

Born in Texas, Katherine is now a lawyer in the northwestern United States.

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    Well, being a black person doesn’t come with a certain inviolable rulebook. Being a Mormon does. So I would say that it’s not the same thing at all.

    If I were on trial for something, I would hope religious extremists would be excluded, since many of them seem to think atheists deserve death even without having committed a crime.

  • Virgin Rose

    Mmm, yeah… the tricky thing with jury selection is that the defendant is supposed to be judged by peers as well as members of the community, no? We would never allow a jury completely composed of one racial group, and the fun part of being a non-Mormon in Mo-ville is having a limited pool of peers who won’t look down on you just because you don’t belong to the club.
    That being said, it isn’t right to make jury selections based solely on religion… but I don’t think that’s what happened here. It sounds like coinidence or affirmative action to me.

  • Anonymous

    The current law seems fair to me. Your religious affiliatio should not matter as much as your beliefs. If a potential juror for a gay defendant identifies as Catholic that need not exclude him or her, since many self-identified Catholics are not anti-gay as mandated by their church.

    I do think religious affiliation should very much be a valid question when screening happens, as a base from which to formulate specific questions about beliefs. Just as you can ask someone if they are a Democrat and then use that to ask how they feel about the 2nd ammendment in a gun crime case, you can ask someone if they are a Muslim and use that to ask if they consider female testimony equal to male, in a case depending in part on female witnesses.

    If I were on trial, what I would want is jurors with a high regard for physical evidence and a strong skepticism towards eyewitness testimony. Frankly, all jurors should go through a short standard course in the types of evidence common to a trial and their level of reliability, since people are often woefully misinformed about those things.

  • SimonSays

    Interesting question-it looks like the juror’s religion primarily relates to sentencing yes?. In Utah does a jury determine the sentence as well the verdict? In Virginia juries select the sentence while in DC it’s done by the judge so this would be interesting to find out.

  • Tinker

    I seem to recall there is something in our little document called the Constitution that says that I would have to be tried by a jury of my peers. I in no way consider a Mormon to be a peer of mine. I would object strenuously to ANY Mormon serving on a jury to judge me. Or, for that matter, anyone that believes in an invisible guy in the sky that grants wishes.

    • Xeon2000

      This x 1000.

  • Erpease

    One group of ‘extremists’ are excluded from trials where the death penalty might be imposed, those who think the death penalty is morally wrong (between 25-30% of the US population).    

  • T-Rex

    Convicted murderer is a convicted murderer. I’m no theist but since I’m in favor of capital punishment, I have no sympathy for this piece of garbage. Good riddance.

    • Demonhype

      Guess what?  This isn’t a discussion about the death penalty, for or against.   This is about the standards of a fair trial and how jury selection is involved with that.  The fact that you can’t seem to grasp that and you are trolling this discussion in favor of the death penalty despite the overwhelming evidence that it is not a deterrent, does not make society safer and executes a lot of innocent people (one example: check out the Innocence Project website for more info–I used to favor the death penalty too, until I bothered to pay attention to the facts instead of my emotions), not to mention the fact that the only arguments in favor of the death penalty are purely emotional revenge fantasies,  says a lot about how much you give a damn about whether trials are fair or not, or whether the suspect is guilty or innocent, or whether it’s even wrong to carry out state-sanctioned murder on an innocent person.  Which says a lot about you.

      • T-Rex

        Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. You have yours and I have mine. Welcome to America.

        He’s a CONVICTED murderer, in case you missed that simple fact. You want to support a piece of trash like this for the rest of his life? Feel free to send him donations. I’d rather see my taxes go to something useful, like feeding the hungry, clothing and housing the homeless, building schools and libraries, funding science, etc.. Not being utilized for living expenses for murderers.

        And since you know absolutely nothing about me, but prefer to project your idea of who and what I am, I will do the same in return. You are obviously a naive, liberal Democrat, probably collecting a welfare check and/or living in your parent’s basement. Go get a job, buy some property, pay some taxes and support yourself and/or your family  and maybe you’ll have a different view of convicted criminals living on your dime. And if my assumptions of you are wrong, well, too bad.

        • Rrr

          He’s a CONVICTED murderer, in case you missed that simple fact.

          Well, the simple fact you appear to have missed is that this discussion concerns wether he was CONVICTED FAIRLY, or not. I can give no input to that quandary. Can you?

        • http://twitter.com/BrookLaa Andy Laa

          Actually if he were executed, guess where the taxes would go…that’s right, his execution and holding on death row for probably many years. It costs about the same to kill him as it does to keep him – look it up.

          I sit on the fence, I don’t really mind if there’s a death penalty one way or the other, I just hate people who don’t understand or don’t want to understand the facts of the matter.

  • http://profiles.google.com/conticreative Marco Conti

    Viscerally, I got the feeling that the inmate indeed may have a case. My reasoning is as follows: let’s say there is a certain type of criminal I particularly dislike. In my case would be child molesters/murderers. Even just by watching law and Order, I know that if I say during jury selection that all child molesters should be put to death, I’ll be disqualified very quickly. So I’ll keep my opinion to myself and if I get caught in the halls making a similar statement I may try to justify it in a way that lets me sit on the jury.

    When I read the events surrounding the blood atonement controversy, the explanation sounded fake to me. A Mormon would know what it means and that’s not Christ sacrifice on the cross. It’s essentially an “eye for an eye” doctrine. I simply don’t find it hard to believe this juror wanted to sit in judgment of the accused and be able to punish him. I probably would too.

    That said, I am against the death penalty. It’s wasteful, and I don’t care how many killers get executed if even one innocent person gets the chair (or whatever). The thought of someone railroaded by the police ending up on death row and executed is revolting to me and lately I have read about many cases where the police railroaded suspects into confessions only to find them innocent later.

    However, if the death penalty is in the books, a prosecutor needs to consider it, and this guy seems to me a perfect candidate. I read what he is accused of and what he did was beyond the pale. His were no heat of the moment murders. He killed who he wanted to kill. 

    I won’t shed any tears for this monster. 

  • Rajesh Shenoy

    >>If you were on trial, who would you want excluded from your jury, and why?
    Anyone who cannot affirm that he/she holds the Constitution above any other books / personal beliefs.

    • Demonhype

      And anyone who can’t seem to understand evidence or places emotional pleas above and beyond facts, logic, and evidence.  Though how to filter out the morons is a problem with that.  Another problem is how do you even put together a trial when you’ve filtered out the vast majority of Americans?

  • Ager Somnia

    As a non-US citizen, I’ll ask you a single thing:

    Why
    is it that the US has such trouble when people in other countries do
    not respect human rights, but have no trouble with failing to respect
    other people right to life and keep trying to commit sanctioned murder
    with dead penalty? The govt. does it perfectly aware, but that’s another matter. But the rest of the people? Do the “Christian” values give permision to decide whether to kill somebody?  Do the “humanist” viewpoint gives permission to end a human life?

  • http://twitter.com/BrookLaa Andy Laa

    I think we’re forgetting the most important part here, guys: Woody Harrelson murdered two people!

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/60/Woody_Harrelson_2009.jpg/220px-Woody_Harrelson_2009.jpg 

  • inka622

    Von Lester Taylor pled guilty to murdering a mother and daughter, Attempted murder by shooting and arson of the daughters husband and the kidnapping of their daughters on Dec 14th 1990 . I doubt it very much if he hesitated before killing those 2 women to ask as to their religious beliefs. Or if  he asked the Daughters husband his religious beliefs before trying to murder him or if he asked the murdered womans own daughters if their religion allowed them to be kidnapped. 
    He carried out terrible, nightmarish, everlasting crimes against 5 people but he now argues over the religion of one person on his jury. 
    Does he honestly believe that the outcome would be different if that juror had been catholic, or jewish, or methodist or maybe even athiest? 
    I was born and christened a Catholic, However over the years my beliefs have changed dramatically. My given religion does not call for blood atonement, my religious standing now do not call for blood atonement. However, my personal feelings and beliefs run very deep. 
    The whole reason for a jury is for those 12 persons to decide if someone is guilty or innocent. If you do a crime serious enough that it then requires a jury then you really should have no right to question who those 12 persons are or their beliefs. 
    A vile human who murders, rapes or violently attacks in attempted murder or rape,  who, when they are caught and brought to court to be judged,  argue that they feel that they are getting unfairly treated.They allowed no such argument from their victims so why should they be allowed that luxury.  And then, should they not also be judged for being racist? 
    But what if he had been found innocent and allowed to go on his merry way…… Would he complain then that there was a mormon on his jury? Would he ask for a re-trial then?  No he would not. He would skip off into the sunset and get on with his life. 
    A murderer is a murderer, and their victims get no say in the matter. They carry out crimes knowing full well what the punishment might be but go ahead and do it anyway? They deserve what they get. 

    • Rrr

      So, the more heinous the crime, the less concern over a fair trial? Simply kill the first person who happens to be accused, and swiftly too. Justice is for wimps, revenge reigns almighty.

      Look, maybe he is guilty as hell – how would you or I ever know for sure? – but the question is, at least as I understand it, whether proper procedure was observed in deciding precisely that issue. And maybe it was not, if the jurors were arguably not his peers. Which, again, I venture none of us can say.

      Isn’t that after all why there is a certain protocol to follow for criminal trials? So follow it, duly. That at least gives a little bit more certainty to the verdict, guilty or not.

      • inka622

        I never said that the first person to be accused should be killed (I never even hinted on it).  Also, I never said that every crime deserves the death penalty, However, in saying that,   This man pleaded guilty to these crimes, so Yes he is “guilty as hell”. No maybe about it (No insult intended but maybe you should read up on the case to get your facts straight).   And yes, proper procedure was observed, jurors were suitably picked, with both sets of solicitor knowing the religious beliefs of each juror and there was NO issue until after they had decided the fate of this man. 
        I think someone like that, who never gave his victims a choice in the matter has some nerve then saying that he is not being treated fairly. Would it really matter if every one of the jurors were of his own religious beliefs and that it was they who sent him away for life or gave him the death penalty??? What would he complain about then? 

        He committed these crimes in 1990, 21 years later and he is still alive. Not much of a death penalty, is it? 

        • Rrr

          I am not disputing this man’s confession. But what is under discussion here is, I think, whether his trial, where he was also convicted, was done right. And that does not pivot upon the seriousness of the crime. It is well known that confessions can be, shall we say coerced. Not saying that happened here, mind you.

          Whatever the other details of this particular case, it is an interesting point the OP raises: What are the implications as to proper procedure in criminal jury selection? And what are the implications of improper procedure?


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