A Texas man who faces execution after jurors at his trial consulted the Bible when deliberating his fate should have his death sentence commuted, Amnesty International said on Friday [October 9, 2009].
Khristian Oliver, 32, is set to be killed on 5 November after jurors used Biblical passages supporting the death penalty to help them decide whether he should live or die.
Amnesty International is calling on the Texas authorities to commute Khristian Oliver’s death sentence. The organization considers that the jurors’ use of the Bible during their sentencing deliberations raises serious questions about their impartiality.
A US federal appeals court acknowledged last year that the jurors’ use of the Bible amounted to an “external influence” prohibited under the US Constitution, but nonetheless upheld the death sentence.
Khristian Oliver was sentenced to death in 1999 for a murder committed during a burglary. According to accomplice testimony at the trial, 20-year-old Oliver shot the victim before striking him on the head with a rifle butt.
After the trial, evidence emerged that jurors had consulted the Bible during their sentencing deliberations. At a hearing in June 1999, four of the jurors recalled that several Bibles had been present and highlighted passages had been passed around.
One juror had read aloud from the Bible to a group of fellow jurors, including the passage, “And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death”.
The judge ruled that the jury had not acted improperly and this was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
In 2002, a Danish journalist interviewed a fifth juror. The latter said that “about 80 per cent” of the jurors had “brought scripture into the deliberation”, and that the jurors had consulted the Bible “long before we ever reached a verdict”.
He told the journalist he believed “the Bible is truth from page 1 to the last page”, and that if civil law and biblical law were in conflict, the latter should prevail. He said that if he had been told he could not consult the Bible, “I would have left the courtroom”. He described himself as a death penalty supporter, saying life imprisonment was a “burden” on the taxpayer.
In 2008, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the jurors had “crossed an important line” by consulting specific passages in the Bible that described the very facts at issue in the case. This amounted to an “external influence” on the jury prohibited under the US Constitution.
However, it concluded that under the “highly deferential standard” by which federal courts should review state court decisions, Oliver had failed to prove that he had been prejudiced by this unconstitutional juror conduct. In April 2009, the US Supreme Court refused to take the case, despite being urged to take it by nearly 50 former US federal and state prosecutors.