Supreme Court Rejects Jurors' Death Sentence

March 29 2005, 6:00 AM

The Colorado Supreme Court Monday refused to reinstate a jury's death verdict in the case of Robert Harlan, convicted of the brutal rape and murder of Rhonda Maloney. The trial court had thrown out the death sentence after trial when it was learned that jurors had brought a bible into their deliberations and quoted passages from it aloud to each other -- passages like, "an eye for an eye." Harlan will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"The Supreme Court finds that it can no longer say the death penalty verdict was not influenced by passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor," the court said in a 47-page ruling. The court said Bible passages, including the verse that commands "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," could lead jurors to vote for death. Harlan's attorneys challenged the sentence after discovering five jurors had looked up Bible verses, copied some of them down and then talked about them behind closed doors.

5280's background on the case is here. Denver's CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen provided this cogent analysis in May, 2003 when Adams County District Court Judge John Vigil first threw out the death sentence.

Jurors in capital cases are supposed to act as the moral conscience of their community. And they are permitted to bring with them into the deliberation room whatever religious or spiritual beliefs they may have. That's what voir dire is for -- to permit the judge, and sometimes the attorneys themselves, to ask potential jurors whether their religious beliefs may interfere with their ability to follow the judge's instructions as to the law of the case. But using your own personal religious beliefs as a moral compass to guide your decision in a capital case is one thing; using the Bible as an offensive weapon to cajole fellow jurors into voting for death is another.

Life without parole is a death sentence. Robert Harlan will only leave jail in a pine box. It's just a question of when. To me, delaying his death is a small price to pay for preserving the rule of law.