What happens when Scripture is quoted in death penalty cases?

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Death chamber at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville where capital convicts are executed by lethal injection. Photo courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Death chamber at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville where capital convicts are executed by lethal injection. Photo courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

(RNS) Brandon Astor Jones, who was executed in Georgia on Wednesday (Feb. 3), was sentenced to death twice. His first death sentence was overturned for an unlikely reason: a Bible had been allowed into the jury room, and an appeals judge thought jurors might have let biblical law trump the Constitution. The second time Jones was sentenced, in 1997, no Bible was involved.

But the role of the Bible in death penalty cases has hardly been settled. The decision to send someone to execution has unmistakably theological connotations, so defense attorneys push jurors with passages about mercy, while prosecutors favor those that deal with retribution. When two Cornell law professors surveyed dozens of such cases in 2000, they found that judges seldom agreed on whether these quotes were permissible, leading to a “hodge-podge of outcomes.”

Here are a handful of death penalty cases where biblical quotes were used. Can you guess whether the judges approved? (The answers can be found below.)

1. “You will have a millstone put around your neck and dropped into the sea.” — Matthew 18:6 (and elsewhere)

In 2013, during the murder prosecution of Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, prosecutor Dale Cox brought up Christ’s speech about drowning those who harm children (an argument Cox has made in other cases). Cox referred to this speech as “Not the mean Christ, not the nice Christ, but the just Christ.” Was it allowed?

2. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” — Luke 23:34

During closing argument at Keith Messiah’s 1983 trial — for the murder of a tourist at a New Orleans restaurant — the defense lawyer made a visceral plea for mercy: “I can only call to mind from nearly 2,000 years ago when they took a man, stripped him, beat him, crowned him with thorns, pierced his side, nailed him to a cross and his mother and relatives were at the foot of the cross, he didn’t say, ‘Send these people to the electric chair, consign them to hell.’ He lifted his eyes up and he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” Was this quotation allowed?

3. “And if he smite with an instrument of iron so that he die, he is a murderer. The murderer shall surely be put to death.” — Numbers 35:16

During closing argument at the 1992 trial of Rudolph Roybal, California prosecutor James Koerber made a long speech about a “book, written long ago” that “mentions what is the appropriate penalty for the crime of murder.” He then recited a variety of biblical quotations. Were the quotations allowed to stand?

4. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”  — Genesis 9:6 and “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” — Exodus 21:24

A California jury was deadlocked 7-5 in favor of giving Stevie Lamar Fields life without parole for the murder of a student librarian at the University of Southern California in 1978. Then the jury foreman, as he later recounted in an affidavit, recited a list of biblical quotations and eventually the jury unanimously chose death. Were the quotations allowed?

5. “And whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death.” — Matthew 15:4

In 1981, Larry Romine, a gospel singer and “occasional preacher,” shot and killed his mother and father in Georgia. The closing argument for death was what one judge later called “a hellfire and brimstone mini-sermon.” As they deliberated, the jurors were sequestered in a church, rather than the customary hotel. They were given a break on Sunday but required to stay at the church, and the trial judge said he hoped a pastor “might put you in a room and give you a good sermon, as long as he don’t get on matters, uh, concerning this,” meaning their decision. Were the prosecutor’s remarks allowed?

6. “He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” — Romans 13:2

A Texas jury was deadlocked 10-2 over whether Jimmie Lucero should be sentenced to death for the 2003 murder of a family of three. The jury foreman’s reading of Romans 13:1-6 — meant to imply that the minority jurors should join the majority because the “authority” of state law permitted the death penalty — was one moment on the path to unanimity. Was the reading allowed?

7. “Cursed is the man who kills his neighbor secretly and all the people shall say amen.” — Deuteronomy 27:24

During the 1998 trial of James Alan Gell in North Carolina, after the defense lawyer called attention to the New Testament emphasis on mercy, prosecutor David Hoke, responded that “Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law or the prophesies of the Old Testament. He came to fulfill them.” Hoke then quoted from Deuteronomy and told the jury, “It’s time to sentence this man, a murderer, to die and let the people of Bertie County say amen.” Were his remarks allowed?


1. Allowed.

After a hearing, the trial judge decided that the biblical argument “was not egregious to the extent that it would have caused a different result.” But the case remains open before the Louisiana Supreme Court, and in October more than 100 religious leaders filed a brief with the court arguing that Cox “publicly injected his own private religious interpretations of the Bible into the trial,” in violation of the Constitution. The court could go either way: The “millstones” line has been approved in North Carolina courts, but not in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

2. Allowed.

An appellate lawyer for Messiah argued that the trial lawyer’s closing remarks — which were short, consisting only of the biblical plea — were insufficient, but the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled his remarks were “reasonable under prevailing professional norms.” (A lot of norms have changed since Messiah’s trial, which lasted only a single day).

3. Not allowed.

In December 2015, Roybal was freed from death row after U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller ruled, “It is evident that the prosecutor meant to intentionally and forcefully argue that religious authority mandated the death penalty.” Prosecutors now must decide whether to pursue another death sentence or allow Roybal to serve life in prison without parole.

4. Allowed.

The courts have flip-flopped, however. In 2000, a federal district judge overturned Fields’ death sentence, saying the jury foreman had improperly allowed religious precepts to play a role in the deliberations. Seven years later, a circuit court reversed the ruling and sent Fields back to death row, explaining that these biblical quotes were simply “notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make.”

5. Not allowed.

The Georgia Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, writing that “a prosecutor misleads a capital sentencing jury when he quotes scripture as higher authority for the proposition that death should be mandatory for anyone who murders his parents.”

6. Allowed.

The Court of Criminal Appeals sided with the jury foreman, who said in an affidavit, “There was no suggestion that the Bible should be consulted as the legal authority.” The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take the case, and Lucero remains on death row.

7. Allowed.

In 2000, North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Henry Frye wrote that the biblical arguments were “within permissible margins given counsel in arguing ‘hotly contested cases.'”

But in 2002, an appeals court found that prosecutors had withheld evidence: Gell was actually innocent. He was freed from prison in 2004 and received $3.9 million in a civil suit.

(This article was originally by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.)

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  • Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Anything quoted from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament has been taken out of context and without understanding of how the Hebrew Bible is to be interpreted. “An eye for an eye,” for example, is strictly about monetary compensation. Furthermore, Hebrew jurisprudence required that before administering the death penalty, the following had to have happened: 1) a person was about to commit an offense; 2) another person warned him not to; 3) the first person went ahead anyway; and 4) a minimum of two witnesses saw the commission of the offense. In other words, the ancient rabbis created an impossibility standard. They once wrote, ““Perhaps a witness testifies that he saw a man running after his fellow into a ruin, the witness pursued him and found him with a sword in his hand dripping with blood while the murdered man was writhing in agony. If this is what you saw, then you saw nothing.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 37b)