Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Let’s Play God

A federal appeals court ruled earlier this week that a jury foreman’s citations of biblical verses appearing to support capital punishment were not prejudicial in persuading the jury to sentence Stevie Lamar Fields to death.

The Los Angeles Timesreport, excerpted below, is fairly representative of general reporting about the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court’s 9-6 ruling:

Appeals court upholds death sentence
A juror's reciting Bible verses did not taint the verdict for Stevie Lamar Fields, a panel rules.
By Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 11, 2007

A federal appeals court Monday refused to overturn the death sentence of convicted murderer Stevie Lamar Fields, rejecting claims that the jury foreman had tainted penalty deliberations by reciting Bible verses, including "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."

Fields was convicted in the 1978 rape, robbery and murder of Rosemary Carr Cobb, a USC student librarian. At the time, he was on parole for a manslaughter conviction.

During penalty deliberations, foreman Rodney White researched and recited for his fellow jurors several biblical passages, among them, "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."

Writing for the 9-6 majority, U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer said that the verses, as well as White's notes listing pros and cons of the death penalty -- including "deterrence" on the pro side and "human fallibility" on the con side -- were "notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make."

Rymer said that it clearly was permissible for White to cite the verses from memory. Consequently, she said, "it is difficult to see how sharing notes can be constitutionally infirm if sharing memory isn't."

She said the court did not have to reach the issue of juror misconduct on the foreman's actions. Even assuming White did something wrong, Rymer wrote, "we are persuaded that White's notes had no substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict."

Monday's ruling reverses one rendered seven years ago by U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian. Although he upheld Fields' conviction, Tevrizian set aside the death sentence, concluding that the jury's consideration of biblical references went against the principle that religion may not play a role in sentencing.

The jury had been deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of sentencing Fields to life without possibility of parole. But after hearing the foreman, the panel voted unanimously to send Fields to the gas chamber.

It’s only when you dig a little deeper that you begin to wonder about the court majority’s benign view that the jury's foreman merely retailed “notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make.”

Anne Reed, a Milwaukee-based attorney, posted the jury foreman’s notes on Capital Defense Weekly's blog site. Here’s Reed’s take:

It’s the sentencing phase of Stevie Fields’s 1979 death penalty murder trial in California. The jury foreman’s name is Rodney White. After the first day of deliberations, White goes home, pulls out his Bible, and starts making notes. The next day, he shares with other jurors the handwritten”For” and “Against” list he has made. “For” death, that is, and against death. His notes list these pros:

• “placate gods”
• “eye for eye”
• “deterrence”
• “Fitting punishment to crime”
• “Rights of victim”
• “Duty of the state to protect citizens”
• “Biblical”
• “Genesis 9:6 ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed,
for in the image of God made He man’ ”
• “Exodus 21:12 ‘He that smiteth a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to
death’ ”

• “Possibility of Repeated offenses”
• “Murder = a rejection of the values of society”
• “New Test”
• “Romans 13:1-5 ‘Let everyone be subject to the higher authorities, for there
no authority except from God, and those who exist have been
appointed by God.
Therefore, he who resists the authority, resists the
ordinance of God; and they that
resist bring on themselves condemnation
• ‘For rulers are a terror not to the good work but to the evil. Dost thou wish, then, not to fear the authority?
• ‘Do what is good and thou will have praise from it. For it is God[’s] minister to thee for good. But if thou dost what is evil, fear, for not without reason does it carry he sword. For it is God’s minister, an avenger to execute
wrath on him who does evil.
Wherefore you must needs be subject, not only
because of the wrath, but also for
conscience’s sake.’ ”
• “Luther, Calvin, Aquinas felt this to be supportive of capital punishment” and
• “Per Paul’s letter to Romans: State has power for two reasons — 1. Satisfy
[sic] of God’s service [and] 2. Protect society by deterring future

And these cons:

• “No real deterrent value—mostly because murderers not normal”
• “Question of ‘Just’—There is no simple, ‘just,’ penalty”
• “Discriminatory selection”
• “Human fallibility—Perhaps wrong chap convicted.”
• “Rehabilitation”
• “ ‘Popular’ feelings”

The first thing you’ll notice is that the “pro” list is a lot longer and more fully fleshed out.

The second point to note is that the only “authorities” cited specifically are biblical. If foreman Rodney White ever read a book of sociology, criminology or penology regarding rehabilitation, for example, he didn’t bother to cite the author or title. But he sure had his biblical citations at his fingertips.

The final item to note is that foreman White’s way of handling Scriptural text is almost certainly fundamentalist: What you read is exactly what it means as a prescription for how you are supposed to act. Thinking beyond the literal meaning of the text appears to have been foreign to Mr. White — and to the seven members of the jury who, after White’s presentation, switched their votes from sentencing Fields to life in prison without possibility of parole to death in California’s gas chamber.

White’s reading of the Bible is fundamentalist in another way: While he demonstrated multicultural sensitivity by including two citations from Hebrew Scripture — thus making his list “Judeo-Christian” — there is not an iota of recognition anywhere in those two citations that rabbinical thinking about imposing capital punishment is so hemmed in with caveats and limitations that the Talmud condemns as “a bloody court” a court that imposes a death sentence once in seventy years. (See this blog’s post of June 22, “Tzedek tzedek.”)

And we take note here as well that the Roman Catholic Church has a similarly long tradition of subjecting such biblical passages to further analysis, with the result that the Vatican and the American bishops consistently teach and speak out against capital punishment.

The jury deliberating Fields’ sentencing may have viewed foreman White’s citations as mere “notions of general currency,” as Judge Rymer noted. But those “notions” are especially narrow, their “generality” questionable, and they are certainly not theologically sophisticated or well informed.

Stevie Lamar Fields appears to have committed heinous crimes, of which a jury found him guilty. The justice of the way in which justice has been imposed upon him may still be considered open to question and doubt — at least beyond the walls of the Ninth Circuit Court’s chambers, and the those of the death chamber in California’s prison system.

Adam Simms

If you’d like to share a comment, click on the word “COMMENTS” below, to the left of the envelope icon.

No comments: