Although Robert Harlan was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a 25-year-old woman and shooting another woman passer-by who tried to help, leaving her paralyzed, a Colorado judge yesterday overturned his death sentence because some jurors had read the Bible during their deliberations.
Harlan was convicted in 1995 of murdering waitress Rhonda Maloney, who was driving home from work when Harlan forced her car off the road, according to a Reuters report. During the crime, he also shot Jaquie Creazzo, a “good Samaritan” who tried to help Maloney. Creazzo was paralyzed by the gunshot.
Ironically, said the report, Adams County District Judge John J. Vigil admitted Harlan’s crimes ”were among the most grievous, heinous and reprehensible” he had ever seen, writing in his ruling: “If any case merits the death penalty, there cannot be serious debate about this case being that case.”
Nevertheless, wrote the judge, the death penalty “must be imposed in a constitutional manner.”
He blamed court officials for failing to sequester the jury adequately – that is, to keep Bibles out of their hands.
Noting that ”the jury supervision performed in this case was extremely negligent and appallingly lax,” Vigil stated in his ruling that ”jury resort to biblical code has no place in a constitutional death penalty proceeding.” As of today, Vigil has not set a date for Harlan’s re-sentencing.
Although jury members, who were sequestered in a hotel during the period of their deliberations, were not exposed to newspapers and other media coverage, court officials didn’t remove the Bibles from jurors’ rooms.
Virgil wrote in his ruling that jurors read Bibles and had notes with scriptural references on punishment in the deliberation room with them before reaching the death-sentence verdict, according to an Associated Press report.
Steve Bernard, Adams County assistant district attorney for the case, said ”We respectively disagree and will appeal,” according to Reuters, adding it was unclear whether or not a Bible was actually brought into the jury room.
During last month’s five-day hearing, attorneys for the convicted murderer argued that some of the jurors had read Bible verses during their deliberations. Two Old Testament verses from Leviticus were particularly problematic, claimed the defense. One read, ”fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.” The other, ”whoever kills an animal shall restore it, but whoever kills a man shall be put to death.”
Kathleen Lord, attorney for Harlan, argued that jurors referring to religious works while deliberating was improper because they are not part of Colorado law, according to the AP report.
On the other hand, prosecutors – arguing that reading the Bible couldn’t have influenced the jury’s verdict anyway – claimed the judge’s order to sequester the jury meant preventing jurors from reading newspapers and watching TV news reports. But it did not, they said, mean jurors should somehow be prohibited from referring to their own personal moral standards – including the Holy Bible – while deliberating and reaching their verdict.
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