Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Courts Got One Right

In a headline story from the Associated Press this morning I read where the Colorado Supreme Courts actually came to the correct decision in a case where some jurors had opened a Bible to help in understanding what they should do. The press is having a field day because they seem to feel that this is another victory over the Religious Right, Death sentence by jury that discussed Bible thrown out”.

“DENVER, Colorado (AP) -- Ruling that juries cannot turn to the Bible for advice during deliberations, a divided Colorado Supreme Court threw out the death penalty for a convicted murderer because jurors discussed Bible verses.”

"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 noted it was unreasonable to expect them to set aside moral standards when they step into a jury room, though there must 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.”

It would appear that the Colorado Supreme Court actually got it right, even though it was a split decision 3 -2. The law clearly does state that jurors are barred from considering evidence not presented at trial and so the opening of a text book to be used in consideration while deliberating the fate of a defendant violates the law. I know that the prosecutor had to be disappointed in the ruling, a ruling that overturned a death penalty into “life without parole”; however, it’s not as if the courts had thrown out the conviction and turned the self confessed murderer loose.

I am concerned that 2 Colorado Supreme Court Justices would follow their “feelings” on this matter rather than the law. They did not rule that the juror’s backgrounds, that of being raised Christians who read the Bible for advice on a regular basis, was the reason for the reversal; only that they had used the Bible while in the jury deliberation process. It would have been just as wrong for them to have been reading any book that had not been entered into the record on that particular case as evidence. Jurors may ask the court for clarification of previously admitted evidence but they are strictly advised to limit their discussion to facts and opinions that have been introduced within the process of legal testimony at that trial and only from that testimony.

I’ll bet many of you who read my blog on a regular basis are wondering what is wrong with me today. There is nothing in my interpretation of this particular ruling; not being a lawyer does not discount my desire to understand the workings of the law, that would run counter to my overall belief and core value system. We are a country that has been defined, for the most part, by our laws and voluntary compliance with those laws. It is unfortunate indeed when our courts fail to work within the structured guidelines and limits of those laws.

I would hope that jurors are given final instructions that include the reminder to come to a decision based solely on information obtained in the trial. This does not prohibit jurors from having the ability to think, or to draw on their many years of experience. The instructions from the judge are a simple reminder not to introduce facts or testimony that has not previously been part of the trial proceedings. It does not prohibit an individual juror from comparing facts and testimony that were presented in the courtroom with his own understanding based on his overall character makeup; to include religious beliefs.

This decision does not limit jurors who have a Christian background any more than it would limit Atheists, Buddhists or "whatever" from providing service in the community based on their individual beliefs. In spite of the news media ejaculations; those who read the Bible are still U. S. Citizens, their votes still count and they still are permitted to serve on juries.

The door swings both ways, I am just as concerned that the Supreme Court of the United States of America considers their own “feelings” on matters that come before the court rather than the law as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I am an “originalist” when it comes to the interpretation of law and the interpretation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. These documents while not “written in stone” are not periodicals that are subject to change on a month to month issuance.

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