Friday, April 08, 2005

The Bible and Jury Deliberations

My buddy 42 sent me this article about two weeks ago. On March 28, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of an accused rapist and murderer because the jury consulted the Bible during its deliberations.

Although this story is two weeks old, I think that it is still relevant for comment. It represents one of the many events that have become part of popular Christian consciousness and contribute to many Christians' feelings that the dominant culture is aggressively secular: hostile to religion and morality in general and to Christianity in particular.

Focus on the Family's response to the ruling is typical:

"Today's ruling further confirms that the judicial branch of our government is nearly bereft of any moral foundation," said Tom Minnery, the group's vice president for government and public policy.

But such a response to the ruling represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened, an ignorance of the law which (for a big and well-funded group like Focus on the Family) is at least negligent.

The jury's sentence was not set aside because the jurors consulted the Bible, but because they consulted anything beyond the evidence presented at trial and the judge's instructions. Almost fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that a criminal jury's verdict must be based on evidence received in open court and not on any outside sources. Marshall v. United States, 360 U.S. 310 (1959). Indeed, the Colorado Supreme Court's opinion made clear that its holding had nothing to do with the religious nature of the text and instead was merely one application of the broad principle that prevents the jury from considering any "extraneous prejudicial texts." State v. Harlan at 16. The result would have been the same if the jury had consulted a book of philosophy, a scientific textbook or a newspaper article. The jury isn't even allowed to use a dictionary! See United States v. Gillespie, 61 F.3d 457 (6th Cir. 1995).

So, the Colorado Supreme Court's ruling has everything to do with the structure of our legal system and nothing to do with the Bible. The role of the jury is to find the facts based on the evidence and apply the law as it is given to them by the judge. This reflects the judgment, not that the Bible is irrelevant to lawmaking, but the judgment that lawmaking is properly done at the legislative level and not by the jury. The decision has nothing to do with Church and State and everything to do with the rule of law. To illustrate: there is no rule, of course, against judges or senators consulting the Bible.

Conclusion: this is one of several non-events that the Right has misrepresented and used to persuade Christians that they are under attack. Christians are thereby distracted from parts of the Right's program - e.g., its favoring of the rich over the poor - that are clearly unChristian.


At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Burleez said...

Infission's thoughts are right on. That you're able to use this blog to rebut a(n) (intentional?) misunderstanding of the Religious Right demonstrates the power of the internet to achieve social progress. In a one-on-one debate on the relevance of the Colorado case to Christians--and whether the case represents an attack on morality or Christianity--Focus on the Family would have no reasonable answer to Infission's argument. As a matter of logic and reason, Infission wins, pure and simple.

Part of what attracts me to blogs like SGT is their transformative potential. My hope is that someday blogs, as vehicles for democratic deliberation, will equal (or perhaps surpass) the communicative power of the mass media. What a better world we would live in if Infission's or 42's or any of the thousands of other progressive bloggers' voices was equally as accessible to Americans as the voices (and propoganda) on Fox, MSNBC, or even the broadcast networks. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we will only regain our Constitutionally protected "freedom of the press" the day the mass media no longer exist as the sole agenda-setting structure for public discourse and the gatekeeper of that discourse's information. My sense is that such a day is well on its way. And what an amazing and transformative day it will be.

Keep up the good work.


At 6:08 PM, Blogger Infission said...

Wow. Thank you.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger ats54 said...

1. Thank you, Infission, for straightening this situation out. The bits and pieces I heard (not sure where: TV? friends? etc.?) led me to believe that the Bible was the issue, not the use of outside material.

2. Burleez's comments are interesting.

Orson Scott Card is a science fiction (and other genres) author that I have recently grown to enjoy. In his "Ender's Game" series, this is exactly how the world works. Different political pundits have their own space on the "nets" and their voices are heard loud and clear. One of the story subplots involves a brilliant character (of high school age) that fakes his personal information and begins posting under the names "Demosthenes" and "Locke". He eventually gains the notice of top political leaders around the world and geo-political events begin to take shape around his thoughts. Very cool stuff.


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