This post was written by Nation intern and freelance writer Andrea D’Cruz.
Ten years ago Khristian Oliver was convicted of murder: during a burglary in March of 1998, Joe Collins, whose house was being robbed, arrived home. As the two burglars attempted to flee, he shot one of them. The other burglar, the then-20 year old Oliver, shot Collins before striking him in the head with a rifle butt, according to testimony at Oliver’s April 1999 trial.
After the trial, it emerged that jurors had consulted their bibles during sentencing deliberations — something that the US Constitution specifically prohibits as “external influence.” In a post-trial hearing later in 1999–the year of the sentencing–the judge was told by four jurors that several Bibles had been present in the jury room, that highlighted passages were passed between jurors, and that one read passages to other jurors. But the judge did not allow the defense to ask questions pertaining to the influence of the Bible’s presence on the sentencing.
One of the jurors deliberating Oliver’s sentence even identified a passage in the Bible that almost precisely described the crime. “And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer,” he read aloud to the Texan jury. And then: “the murderer shall surely be put to death.”
The jurors did indeed sentence Oliver to death and his execution is set for November 5. On the basis of the divine intervention on the sentencing process, which created an unfair and partial jury, Amnesty International has issued an urgent appeal stating: “Even supporters of the death penalty will agree that no one should ever be executed if there is any suggestion of any unfair trial. Khristian Oliver’s trial wasn’t just unfair; it was a travesty.”
Last year the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, while conceding that the presence of the Bible was wrongful and an “external influence” prohibited under the Constitution, said there wasn’t enough evidence to demonstrate that it had prejudiced the jury. Oliver’s lawyer blamed the presiding judge: “We were prohibited from asking the question we were later being asked to prove.”
The answer to that question was given in an interview in 2002 by a Danish journalist with a fifth juror. He divulged that “about 80 per cent” of the jurors had “brought scripture into the deliberation”, and that the jurors had consulted the Bible “long before we ever reached a verdict.” Had he been told that he couldn’t consult the Bible, “I would have left the courtroom”, the juror declared. He described himself as a death penalty supporter and life imprisonment as a “burden” on the taxpayer and disclosed his belief that “the Bible is truth from page 1 to the last page” and that if civil law and biblical law were in conflict, scripture should prevail.This good article in the Guardian has further details about the extent to which the jurors relied on a faith-based process to determine their sentence.
In 2005 the state supreme court in Colorado overturned a death penalty on a convicted murderer because the jurors had turned to the Bible while deliberating over his sentence. However, decisions relating to these kinds of cases have been inconsistent and so, earlier this year 46 former federal and state prosecutors urged the Supreme Court to hear Oliver’s case to resolve this issue. In April the Supreme Court refused.
AI is demanding that, “the Texan Board of Pardon and Paroles should now instruct the state governor to commute Mr. Oliver’s death sentence and indeed he should himself stay the execution if the board fails to act” and is urging people in the US and around the world to send appeals today.