Constitutional Law,  Criminal Procedure,  Death Penalty,  Juries

Ninth Upholds Death Penalty Despite Jury’s Reference to Bible during Penalty Phase Deliberations

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).

How Appealing has this round-up of press coverage.

One Comment

  • K. Bandell

    …in my opinion this decision opens a Pandora’s box for legitimising the use with impunity by jurors of all sorts of nonevidentiary materials….in this case, moreover, the original jury was split….there is no way of ascertaining whether or not jurors who voted in favor of life were in some way seduced by the sanctity and by the sobriety of theorlogical notions, notions which, moreover, were predominantly Christian….

    …the presence of a contaminated juror – that is, the gentleman whose wife became convicncedthat Mr. Fields may have been the individual who had assaulted her – should in and of itself rendered all verdicts null and void….

    …it is not scientific proof of imprprietites which must on behalf of Mr. Fields be demanded but rather strong and documented appearancesof imprprieties….in this case appearances of imprprietities abound….

    …let us hope that in spite of its current composition, the SCOTUS will reverse….thank you and in peace….(562)864-8957….