The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that a death sentence must be overturned because the jury unconstitutionally consulted a Bible while deciding the penalty. Jurors admitted reading a passage from Leviticus that demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Bible citations and other outside material are explicitly prohibited from being used as a resource in American jury rooms. What is at issue here is not the crime that was committed but the obligation of the court to ensure that justice is doled out properly.
In opposition to the ruling, Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at James Dobson's Focus on the Family, declared that law cannot exist without a "transcendent standard."
"You have moral principles that come from the Bible that are the underpinnings of our society," Minnery continued. "Murder is plainly addressed in the Bible and capital punishment comes from that: One who takes a life loses his own life -- that is a biblical principle tied to English common law."
This view represents the opposite of what defines the American legal tradition. "In the U.S., unlike Iran, we do not turn religious law into civil law and just apply it," said Americans United Executive Director the Rev. Barry Lynn to the Denver Post.
Minnery's complaint also confuses the issue; this is not about consulting moral principles, this is about using the Bible to decide a criminal sentence. Jurors admitted that they read from the Bible to persuade a juror who was concerned that imposing the death penalty would violate his Christian faith. A jury room is not a Bible study.
The Colorado Supreme Court's ruling still allows jurors to bring their own beliefs and experiences to bear on a case; that would be unavoidable. Jurors cannot, however, bring in outside materials as a crutch; they must wrestle with the facts of a case, the relevant law and their moral compass.
"Court decisions are about line-drawing and it's a well-established rule that they can't consult outside sources when deliberating, whether it's the Bible or 'The DaVinci Code,'" AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan told the Rocky Mountain News.