Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Theology in the Jury Room: Religious Discussion as "Extraneous Material" in the Course of Capital Punishment Deliberations

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Theology in the Jury Room: Religious Discussion as "Extraneous Material" in the Course of Capital Punishment Deliberations

Article excerpt


Why would a God concerned about justice in a matter of life and death be willing to delegate an absolute power over life and death to such fallible and morally benighted creatures?1

In the landmark Furman v. Georgia decision,2 Justice Brennan likened capital punishment to a mere game of chance: "When the punishment of death is inflicted in a trivial number of the cases in which it is legally available, the conclusion is virtually inescapable that it is being inflicted arbitrarily. Indeed, it smacks of little more than a lottery system."3 Although Brennan's argument in Furman focused primarily on disparities across racial lines in death penalty implementation,4 the notion of arbitrariness5 applies

equally well to our knowledge of the processes, discussions, and maneuvers that take place behind the closed doors of many capital punishment jury rooms.6 It is practically impossible, and indeed explicitly prohibited by the Rules of Evidence,7 to delve into jurors' thoughts and considerations pertaining to a particular sentencing

decision.8 This limitation assumes heightened significance when a jury delivers a death penalty sentence,9 given that it is the "ultimate punishment"10 and cannot be corrected after implementation.11

The trial of Kevin Young12 stands as one of many that illustrate the dangers13 inherent in erecting impenetrable barriers

around capital punishment jury deliberations.14 In 1997, Young faced a jury trial in the District Court of Oklahoma County,15 in which the jury sentenced Young to the death penalty for the charge of murder in the first degree, to twenty years imprisonment for attempted robbery with a firearm, and to thirty years imprisonment for shooting with intent to kill.16

Following the sentencing, Young's attorney filed an "Application for Evidentiary Hearing on Extraneous Information Relied Upon By the Jury"17 with the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma.18 Young's counsel alleged that several jurors incorporated at least one Bible into the sentencing deliberations and, as a result, prejudicially influenced the jury as a whole.19 The Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case to the district court for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether one or more jurors physically brought extraneous material, specifically a Bible, into the deliberation room, and if so, whether jurors incorporated that extraneous material into their sentencing deliberations.20 The trial judge found that one juror "may or may not have had a New Testament inside his brief case during the second stage of trial."21

The court's uncertainty was due to inconsistencies in the testimony of a single juror discovered during the evidentiary hearing.22 In interviews with an investigator acting on Young's behalf, this juror contended that the jury foreperson brought a Bible into the jury room during the sentencing phase and, along with another juror, read verses from Psalms.23 In addition, the juror stated that she had been considering voting for lifetime imprisonment without parole, but fellow jurors swayed her to vote for a death sentence after reading aloud verses from Romans during the sentencing deliberations.24 At the evidentiary hearing, however, the juror contradicted her previous statement to the investigator and instead testified that she had read the passages from Romans alone at night during the voir dire process and that her fellow jurors did not actually read the Bible in the jury room.25 The apparent inconsistencies, taken in context with other testimony presented at the evidentiary hearing, prompted the trial judge to conclude that there was no credible evidence that a juror either brought or used a Bible in the jury room during the sentencing deliberations.26

Referring to the trial judge's findings as "clearly erroneous and/or unreasonable,"27 Young's counsel implored the Court of Criminal Appeals to review the evidentiary hearing record de novo to determine whether jurors incorporated a Bible into their sentencing deliberations. …

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