Biblical Death Penalty Cases Rejected by Justices

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Two men sentenced to death in North Carolina are benefitting from misapplied precedent about jury consideration of the Bible, two justices complained Monday.
     Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the dissent at issue, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, which dissents from the court’s decision to deny certiorari in two Fourth Circuit cases.
     The first case involves the sentencing of William Barnes for his role in the 1992 murder of a deputy sheriff and the officer’s wife.
     At the hearing, an attorney for one of Barnes’ co-defendants appealed to the jury’s Christian obligations.
     “You can never justify violating a law of God by saying the laws of man allowed it,” the defense attorney told the jurors.
     After Barnes was sentenced to death, the defense learned that one of the jurors had called a minister for guidance about capital punishment.
     With no evidence that that the juror discussed case specifics, however, the trial court refused to let the defense question the jury.
     Barnes remained unsuccessful until the Fourth Circuit reversed last year, based on its interpretation of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Remmer v. U.S.
     The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals panel looked to its own precedents, however, to find that the death-penalty sentencing qualified as a matter considered “presumptively prejudicial” if a juror talks about it.
     A Fourth Circuit panel relied on its own precedents as well in granting the hearing requested by convicted killer Jason Hurst.
     After Hurst received the death sentence, Hurst learned that one of the jurors asked her father to direct her to Bible passages about capital punishment.
     The father led her to the quotation about “an eye for an eye,” but the state argued that there was no evidence that this father knew the details of his daughter’s case or deliberately tried to influence her vote.
     Thomas said the Fourth Circuit’s error is one that the court has summarily reversed repeatedly this term, and that Barnes and Hurst’s cases are no different.
     Section 2254(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act limits courts to considering only Supreme Court interpretation of the law in their consideration of cases, the dissent emphasizes.
     All too often, however, some federal courts “look to their own precedents,” Thomas wrote.
     In these cases, the Fourth Circuit looked to its earlier decisions in Stockton v. Virginia and United States v. Cheek.
     “Neither of those decisions is a precedent of this court,” Thomas wrote.
     Thomas distinguished the Barnes juror’s communications from the Supreme Court precedent of Remmer, which involved a third party who told a juror that he could profit by bringing in a certain verdict.”
     In the Barnes’ case, however, the communication involved “a juror who asked a minister a question about the death penalty generally and did not discuss the facts of the case.”
     “No precedent of this court holds that such a communica­tion concerns ‘the matter pending before the jury,'” Thomas said.
     When the Fourth Circuit ruled for Hurst later, it considered itself bound by Barnes.
     “That conclusion was just as erroneous as the one in Barnes itself,” Thomas wrote.

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