Ruling that juries cannot turn to the Bible for advice during deliberations, the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday refused to reinstate the death penalty in a brutal rape and murder because jurors had studied such verses as "eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
Robert Harlan's death sentence was tossed out because a Bible was brought into the deliberation room.
On a 3-2 vote, justices ordered Robert Harlan to serve life in prison without parole for kidnapping 25-year-old cocktail waitress Rhonda Maloney in 1994 and raping her at gunpoint for two hours.
The jurors in Harlan's 1995 trial sentenced him to die, but defense lawyers discovered five of them had looked up Bible verses, copied them down and talked about them while deliberating a sentence behind closed doors.
"The Bible and other religious documents are considered codes of law by many in the contemporary communities from which Colorado jurors are drawn," the court said.
Noting that it takes a unanimous jury to impose a death sentences under Colorado law, the Supreme Court said that "at least one juror in this case could have been influenced by these authoritative passages to vote for the death penalty when he or she may otherwise have voted for a life sentence."
Assistant District Attorney Michael Goodbee said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling and could ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider or could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Nancy Rice and Rebecca Love Kourlis dissented. In an opinion written by Rice, they said the evidence did not show biblical passages influenced the jurors.
She said any Bible discussions that occurred took up a little time and were not meant to convince other jurors to vote for the death penalty.
"It is important to note that the concept of extraneous information does not include the general knowledge a juror brings to court. We expect jurors in death penalty cases to rely not only on their life experiences, but also on their moral judgments," Rice wrote.
Gov. Bill Owens issued a statement that said he was disappointed in the ruling.
"(Monday's) decision is demeaning to people of faith and prevents justice from being served. The death penalty in a heinous crime has been overturned by a highly subjective ruling that truly splits hairs. Even the justices who voted to overturn the penalty agreed that moral values and religious beliefs are important and can be part of the debate among jurors," Owens' statement said, in part.
Jay Horowitz, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former University of Denver law professor, said the law bars jurors from considering evidence not presented at trial.
But he said it is unreasonable to expect them to set aside their moral standards when they step into the jury room, although there have to be limits.
"In fact, people do bring their background and thoughts and impressions, and you can't separate from that, and shouldn't try to," he said.
Prosecutors said Harlan kidnapped Maloney when she was on her way home from work at a casino February of 1994.
Maloney was shot to death after almost escaping. She slipped away from Harlan and flagged down Jaquie Creazzo, a passing motorist. Creazzo was taking Maloney to a police department when the pursuing gunman fired at her vehicle, hitting her in the back.
When the car came to a stop, the gunman pulled Maloney out and left. Her body was found a week later under a bridge. Creazzo was paralyzed from the chest down.
Harlan admitted killing Maloney but said he was addled by cocaine, alcohol and rage.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, defense attorney Kathleen Lord said the jurors had gone outside the law. "They went to the Bible to find out God's position on capital punishment," she said.
Prosecutors had argued that jurors should be allowed to refer to the Bible or other religious texts during deliberations.
The conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family, had sharp criticism for the court.
"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. "It is a sad day when the Bible is banned from a jury room; to withhold justice simply because biblical principles were used in finding it belies an arrogance that is difficult to fathom."
Justices Michael L. Bender and Nathan B. Coats did not participate in the case. They are not required to offer and explanation, and neither did.
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