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.
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?
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