However, this morning I ran across an angle on the case that interests me more. Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice has a post on the case, describing how the 5th Circuit agreed the scripture constituted an "external influence" on the jury but concluded that "under the "highly deferential standard" by which federal courts should review state court decisions, [the defendant] had failed to prove that he had been prejudiced by this unconstitutional juror conduct." SCOTUS recently declined to hear the matter, so the Bible-influenced verdict stood and the defendant was executed last week. A commenter at Simple Justice, Wayne Clemons, points out that:
Reading a few verses down, the jury would have found:It's not just murder, of course, for which the Bible would require mulitple witnesses: "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established." (Deuteronomy 19:15)
"Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness."
It's funny (and not ha-ha funny) how those most aggressively positing a biblical, scriptural basis for capital punishment often appear unconcerned at such biblical due process niceties.
Recently I wrote about a capital murder case in which the only evidence against the defendant was a jailhouse snitch and a scent lineup by Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett's dogs. So I guess that's two witnesses, if you count the dog. But really it's none, since the snitch didn't actually see the crime and was compensated by the state with official leniency for his testimony.
In reality, our judicial system simply does not require proof "beyond a reasonable doubt," even if that's the hackneyed catch phrase with which juries are instructed - not when a jailhouse snitch and an accusation from a dog can get you a capital murder conviction (thankfully in that case the jury gave sentence of life without parole). Until Texas became one of the only states to change its law (in 2001), thousands of drug defendants were convicted based solely on the testimony of an undercover snitch, many of them by drug task forces like the ones memorialized in book and film in Tulia and Hearne. In non-drug cases, that's still legally enough to convict.
The real, workaday standard of proof typically employed in criminal cases is closer to what lawyers would call a "preponderance of the evidence" - based on the evidence heard by the jury, guilt is more likely than not, but by no means certain. That's about all you can say about a case made on testimony by a jailhouse snitch and a dog. There's absolutely no way under those circumstances that all "reasonable doubt" could be extinguished. Ditto for the Tulia cases, where testimony from one lying cop was enough to convict some three dozen people.
Courts routinely allow convictions based on a single eyewitness' identification, even when the witness had never seen the defendant before the encounter. But research shows the error rates in such identifications are unconscionably high, particularly when police don't use best practices and contaminate eyewitness evidence during a lineup.
As I said in the comments at Simple Justice, "It wouldn't matter if you kept the Bible out of the jury room. Folks who believe strongly that way can quote chapter and verse." But I also lamented "that VERY few Christians emphasize the 'two or three witnesses' requirement as strongly as the 'eye for an eye' stuff," even though "for Christians, the New Testament retains the former and rejects the latter." (See this discussion.)
I don't kid myself that jurors won't bring their religious beliefs with them into the courtroom - including those who believe in biblical infallibility, whose number in Texas are not insignificant. But I wish when that happens, Christian jurors would focus as much attention on the Bible's insistence the right person be punished as they do on Old Testament penalties.
RELATED: Three guys who couldn't be on a Harris County jury: Moses, Jesus and the Apostle Paul