Death sentence thrown out because of jurors' use of Bible
The Bible saves lives. Just ask Robert Harlan.

In 1995 a Colorado jury convicted him of kidnapping, raping, and murdering 25-year-old Rhonda Maloney, and shooting a bystander who tried to help.

Friday, Judge John J. Vigil overturned Harlan's death sentence because jurors illegally used Bibles while deliberating and quoted a reference to "an eye for an eye."

The crimes Harlan committed, Vigil said, were "among the most grievous, heinous and reprehensible" he had seen in his 18 years as judge. "If any case merits the death penalty, there cannot be serious debate about this case being that case."

But while jurors can use their personal convictions in deliberations, they can't use texts that weren't introduced at trial.

"Jury resort to biblical code has no place in a constitutional death penalty proceeding," Vigil ruled. The quoted Levitical passages, he said,  "more than simply encourage jurors to follow the instructions of the court. … The biblical passages involved not only encouraged the death penalty but required that it be imposed when another life is taken.  The passages also directed jurors to take guidance from, and obey, the government. They left the jurors no discretion."

CBS News legal commentator Andrew Cohen sums up the reasoning:

Jurors in capital cases are supposed to act as the moral conscience of their community. And they are permitted to bring with them into the deliberation room whatever religious or spiritual beliefs they may have. That's what voir dire is for—to permit the judge, and sometimes the attorneys themselves, to ask potential jurors whether their religious beliefs may interfere with their ability to follow the judge's instructions as to the law of the case. But using your own personal religious beliefs as a moral compass to guide your decision in a capital case is one thing; using the Bible as an offensive weapon to cajole fellow jurors into voting for death is another.

The Associated Press says Harlan will be resentenced; the Rocky Mountain News says his sentence is commuted to life in prison.

In any case, Assistant Adams County District Attorney Steve Bernard promised to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.

"We respectfully disagree with the court's determination of the facts in this case," he told The Denver Post. "There was a statement about the presence of Bibles, but I don't think the testimony was clear that there was one there, and if so, if it was used, and if so, if it was read from."

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"Prosecutors argued that the Bible reading was done for comfort or inspiration and was a harmless error in the face of the overwhelming evidence against Harlan justifying the death penalty," the Rocky Mountain News reports.

Harlan isn't alone. In 2000, the Supreme Court of Georgia and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned death penalties because prosecutors quoted Scripture. But that same year, Ohio's Supreme Court said such references didn't matter. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't ruled, and in 1999 turned away a Nebraska case in which a judge quoted Scripture in sentencing.

The Prayer of Bruce
Instead of using one of those 555 phone numbers like you see in most movies, the creators of Bruce Almighty decided to use a more realistic-sounding phone number for God. It turns out the number was too realistic—it actually exists in many states—usually on mobile phones. Now the owners of those phones are getting inundated with calls for God.

"A lot of them sound very serious about this thing, and that's what I can't understand. How can they go to a movie and believe that's real?" Myrtle Hallman, who owns the number in Columbia, North Carolina, told The Charlotte Observer. "I can't conceive of grown-ups really thinking that's true."

The best story belongs to a guy actually named Bruce. He's not God, but he knows where to find him. Bruce MacInnes is pastor of Turner's Chapel Church in Sanford, North Carolina. "I had another call from a man who asked to talk to God," MacInnes told the Associated Press. "I told him if he was serious I would be happy to talk with him about God. I said if he wasn't serious he could just hang up. He hung up."

Hallman says she got through to someone. According to The State of South Carolina, she told someone who asked to speak to God, "You get down on your knees and you talk to God, and he'll hear you-because he's everywhere. He doesn't just live here, so get down on your knees. If I could get down on mine, I would, but I can't, and I think he understands that. God is supposed to hear us wherever we are."

More articles

Anglican leadership debates gay couples:

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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) General Assembly:

Interfaith relations and other religions:

  • The 'loving rebuke' | Earlier this month, a group of religious figures gathered in Washington, D.C., in order to publicly condemn recent remarks on Islam and Mohammed by evangelical leaders, including me (Jerry Falwell,

  • Another 'survey' of Christians | In total disregard of the Gujarat High Court's orders, the Patan district police have launched yet another "survey" of the Christians and the institutions run by the community even as the State authorities denied issuing any such instruction (The Hindu, India)

  • Council accuses Patan police of conducting Christian survey (Express, India)

  • In service of faith | Christian, Jewish congregations unite to serve community; volunteers will work at nursing homes, visit hospitals (Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio)

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  • 'I fell for their love' | Guven Yay, a former Muslim from Turkey, came to Wichita and found a new faith at Olivet Baptist Church (The Wichita Eagle)

Church and state:

  • Firefighters file lawsuit over chaplains in their ranks | Complaining officers object to the chaplains' wearing religious insignia while on duty and say it is only a short step from counseling fellow firefighters to proselytizing them (The New York Times)

  • Also: Chaplain's corps faces lawsuit | Six firefighters want it replaced with religious counselors (The San Luis Obispo Tribune, Calif.)

  • Graduation prayer a tricky issue, but consider this approach | The best place for prayers, sermons on graduation weekend is at privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service held after school hours (Charles Haynes, First Amendment Center)

  • Can we afford (not) to study religion? | Upon the simple constitutional principle that Congress shall not make laws either respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise, we Americans have developed arsenals of arguments to aim at each other (William B. Lawrence, The Dallas Morning News)

  • School board prays before meetings | Some residents offended at use of Lord's Prayer (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.)

  • Church, state 'should stay separate' | No church leader should ever be appointed governor-general because it would muddy the waters between church and state, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell said today (The Daily Telegraph, Australia)


  • Crowds mourn rapper | "Get back out there on those same streets and let it be known that Christianity is cool," says the Rev. Matthew M. Odum. "You can be saved and still be a player. You don't have to be in the church to become the church." (The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.)

  • Christian rock pioneer is still learning lessons | Randy Stonehill says changes in his music industry are a 'mixed blessing' (The Dallas Morning News)

  • Heavenly tones: The mighty pipe organ | From cathedrals to shopping malls, the mighty organ keeps breathing (The Christian Science Monitor)

History and artifacts:

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Church life:

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  • Also: In shift, U.S. to offer grants to historic churches | Breaking with longstanding policy, the Bush administration will allow federal grants to be used to renovate religious sites that are designated historic landmarks (The New York Times)

  • Also: U.S. changes policy in grant to church | It is part of a campaign by the president "to remove barriers that have prevented faith-based groups from being treated fairly in the public square," says Jim Towey (Associated Press)

  • Europe may be key to revival of church | Closer ties with Christian Europe offers the best hope of arresting the decline of church attendance in Scotland, an expert on the history of religion claimed last night (The Herald, Glasgow)

Missions and ministry:

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