Morals |

TBC Staff

Is court a place for morals?

(Excerpts) There's an even deeper divide in the American legal system than the separation between church and state.

When the Colorado Supreme Court overturned Robert Harlan's death sentence last month, it showed once again just how uncomfortable the American legal system is in invoking moral values as a basis for legal decision-making.

Harlan had been convicted of raping and murdering a cocktail waitress in Denver in 1995. Before sending the jury out to determine his fate, the lower court judge instructed each juror to make an "individual moral assessment" of whether Harlan should pay the ultimate price for his crime or, instead, spend the rest of his life in jail. Colorado law is unusual in explicitly asking jurors to evaluate their own moral beliefs when deciding capital cases. Taking the judge's instructions seriously, one or more jurors brought a Bible into the jury room and referred to it during deliberations. Harlan was sentenced to death; one juror later acknowledged that she had studied Leviticus 24: an "eye for an eye, tooth for tooth."

In its 3-2 decision overturning the death sentence, the Colorado Supreme Court found that the verdict was tainted by the "aid or distraction of extraneous texts" -- in this case, the Bible. The court also expressed concern that jurors believed they had consulted a "higher authority."

The jury, after all, did not consult the Bible on the question of guilt or innocence. The jurors had already made that determination based on the evidence presented at trial. But this case is particularly confusing because the trial judge specifically told the jurors to locate the dial on their own individual moral compasses. How did he expect such soul searching to occur? When faced with such a morally complex matter as the death penalty, why wouldn't we expect jurors to seek the assistance of the very texts or teachings that influence their own vision of moral conduct?

And even if they hadn't actually discussed the Bible by name, or leafed through it, they would have done it anyway -- privately, in their hearts. What difference does it make that they had physical possession of it?

No matter what the legal system pretends, jurors are not blank slates. They have many preformed opinions, attitudes and, yes, even prejudices. They have been influenced in innumerable ways and exposed to all manner of life lessons. They are riddled with subjectivities that are revealed throughout the proceedings in sometimes subtle and, more often than not, contradictory ways. Robots do not sit in judgment of other human beings. A jury of our peers means -- and should mean -- those who struggle equally and mightily with their own strivings for virtue and concessions to sorrow.

This Colorado ruling suggests an even deeper divide in the American legal system than the separation between church and state -- the one between the legal and the moral. The law prides itself on its rigidity, objectivity and presumed certainty. But, in fact, its deliberations are as messy as that of any other institution where human beings are brought together in the search for clarity and closure (Jewish World Review, Rosenbaum, April 6, 2005) .

[TBC: This shows the innate contradictions in the world. It is a moral judgment that it is wrong to rape and murder a woman, but as a nation we are increasingly reluctant to acknowledge this lest we put ourselves in a place of accountability.]