Stevie Lamar Fields was convicted in California state court of heinous crimes, including murder, which he committed in the course of a three-week spree that he started just two weeks after completing a prison stretch for manslaughter. During the penalty phase of his trial, the jury foreman consulted a Bible, a dictionary, and other reference texts, made notes of points for and against the death penalty, then shared those notes with the jury. The foreman’s notes in favor of the death penalty included Biblical passages. Fields was sentenced to death.
The District Court denied habeas relief on the conviction but granted it as to the death penalty. The Ninth Circuit’s en banc reversal of habeas relief for the death sentence in Fields v. Brown, case no. 00-99005 (9th Cir. Sept. 10, 2007) is generating law blog buzz.
The Ninth summarized Fields’ arguments regarding the Biblical references as follows:
[Fields] submits that there is a material difference between a juror’s commenting on the evidence from general knowledge that other jurors can easily rebut, and a jury’s considering written notes of religious mandates and appeals to a higher authority. And he contends that the Biblical verses were “strong medicine” that supported imposition of the death penalty when the jurors were split in favor of life without the possibility of parole, thus were prejudicial.
Applying an objective test for undue influence, the court opines that a jury would not be unduly influenced by the notes:
Whether or not [the foreman] should have brought his notes to the jury room and shared them, we cannot say that the Biblical part of the “for” part of the notes had a substantial and injurious effect on the verdict. His own notes had an “against” part as well. So far as we can tell, the communication occurred early on in deliberations. Jurors could take as much time as they needed to sort through the evidence and reflect on whether the ultimate penalty was the right penalty. More importantly, the jury was instructed to base its decision on the facts and the law as stated by the judge, regardless of whether a juror agreed with it. We presume that jurors follow the instructions.
Ultimately, however, the court appears to rely on the presence of aggravating factors in support of the death penalty as a counterweight to the notes. The aggravating evidence was so substantial, the court finds, that jury misconduct had no “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Given this substantial aggravation, the court saw “no prejudicial constitutional error on account of the juror’s notes that requires issuance of the writ.”
By my read, the majority (the case generates three opinions covering 99 pages) leaves open the possibility that where aggravating factors are not so prevalent, or evidence of them not so great, the influence of Biblical materials in the jury deliberations might well be found to have an injurious influence on the jury.
Other law blog coverage can be found at Decision of the Day, Capital Defense Weekly (which calls the decision “cert. bait”), Deliberations (very detailed), and Sentencing Law and Policy (providing links to prior posts on circuit splits on this issue).