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.

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?

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.

 

  • Garson Abuita

    When I was an appellate prosecutor, we had surprisingly many cases in which biblical verses were quoted on summation or in the penalty phase (these were all non-capital cases). The only one I really recall leading to a reversal was one where a minister was accused of several acts of child abuse, and the prosecutor said something like, “Jesus said suffer the little children to come unto me, and this defendant is trying to prevent them from doing that.” In another case that I think got affirmed, where the defendant had murdered his brother, the judge quoted the midrash from the Cain and Abel story (Gen. 4:10): do not read “the blood of your brother,” but “the _bloods_ of your brother (demei achicha) cry out to me,” because someone who kills a person also prevents that person’s descendants from ever existing.

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  • Funny how God always says exactly what we want him to say at just those moments when we need him to open his mouth and verify what we think would be best. It is almost like we are putting the words right in his mouth!
    Gosh. He sure works in mysterious ways. :-/

  • Susan

    The rabbis made it virtually impossible to ever execute anyone. They required three witnesses to the actual murder and the agreement of all 10 judges. “an eye for an eye” may be one of the most misunderstood phrases in the Hebrew Bible. It was almost immediately interpreted to mean monetary compensation for an eye.

    Yes Max, people see in the Bible what they want to see, but that is true of any great literature.