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October 15 2009 | UNITED STATES


Sacred Bible used to sentence to death Khristian Oliver

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US authorities urged to overturn death sentence after jury consulted Bible

Jurors read from scripture as they deliberated on whether Khristian Oliver should be sentenced to death

Chris McGreal in Washington,

Thursday 15 October 2009

The Texas jury didn't hesitate to find Khristian Oliver guilty of shooting and bludgeoning an elderly man to death. Oliver had stood over his bleeding victim, repeatedly hitting him in the head with a rifle butt before robbing his house.

But then came the difficult decision over whether to sentence Oliver to death, and that's when the Bibles came into their own.

A clutch of jurors huddled in the corner with one reading aloud from the Book of Numbers: "The murderer shall surely be put to death" and "The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer."

Another juror highlighted passages which she showed to a fellow juror: "And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, the murderer shall surely be put to death."

Ten years later Oliver, now 32, is just three weeks from execution. Two appeals courts have rejected his pleas for the jury's death sentence in 1999 to be overturned on the grounds it was improperly influenced by references to the Bible. Some of the jurors have made no secret of the part their religious beliefs played in reaching their decision but the US supreme court has refused to take up a case that has been condemned as "a travesty".

Amnesty International has said the use of biblical references "to decide life or death in a capital trial is deeply, deeply troubling" and called on the authorities in Texas, which has carried out nearly half of the 39 executions in the US this year, to commute the sentence.

Oliver's lawyers called four members of the jury that convicted him to testify at an appeal hearing. At the hearing, one of them, Kenneth McHaney described how another juror, Kenneth Grace, read the Bible aloud to a group of jurors.

Donna Matheny showed McHaney a Bible in which she highlighted passages including one that "says that if a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, then he is a murderer and should be put to death".

Maxine Symmank told the court that she too had read a passage from the Book of Numbers: "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." Another juror, Michael Brenneisen, told a journalist in 2002 that he asked himself "Is this the way the Lord would decide the case?" But Brenneisen also said that in discussing the Bible the jury "went both directions in our use of the scripture - forgiveness and judgement".

McHaney said there were about four Bibles in the jury room.

A Texas state appeal court rejected Oliver's plea to strike down the sentence because, it said, he had not "presented clear and convincing evidence" that the Bible influenced the jury's decision. The court acknowledged that there was reference to the Bible by the jurors but said it was not improper. It said "a conscientious, dedicated" jury was "uninfluenced by any outside influence of any kind shown to the court in this hearing".

A federal appeal court disagreed, saying that references to the Bible inside the jury room were improper but it still refused to overturn the death sentence on the grounds that Oliver's lawyers had not proved that the readings influenced the death penalty decision. The court ruled that the jurors would have applied their own moral judgements which would, in any case, have been influenced by their religious beliefs.

Oliver's lawyer until last month, Winston Cochran, said the rulings are the result of an impossible situation in which he was prevented at the first appeal hearing from directly asking the jurors if the Bible readings had an influence on their decision. The federal court then turned down a subsequent appeal on the grounds that the jurors had not explicitly said they were swayed by the Bible.

"We were prohibited from asking the question we were later being asked to prove," he said.

Cochran also criticised the appeal court view that jurors were merely applying moral beliefs they already held.

"The problem is there was testimony the Bible was passed around and shown to people. It was part of the discussion. It wasn't just used by individuals to reinforce their existing belief," he said.

With the supreme court refusing to take up Oliver's case, his remaining options are the Texas board of pardons and the state governor, Rick Perry. The board of pardons rarely recommends clemency and Perry is unlikely to set aside a death sentence in a deeply religious state on the grounds that jurors referred to the Bible.

Perry has in any case shown no interest in revisiting controversial death penalty cases. This week he described a man executed in 2004 for burning his three children to death as a "monster" despite a growing body of evidence that he was wrongly convicted on spurious scientific evidence. Perry described claims that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent as anti-death penalty propaganda.

"Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case," he said.

Perry has sacked some members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as they were about to review a new scientific report highly critical of the evidence used to convict Willingham. If the commission had decided the evidence was flawed, it could have led to the first official admission of a wrongful execution in Texas.

"Getting all tied up in the process here frankly is a deflection of what people across this state and this country need to be looking at," Perry said.

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