Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Prosecutor's Biblical References Not A Basis For Overturning Death Sentences

Jackson v. Epps2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102562 (ND MI, Sept. 28, 2010) is a habeas corpus action by a prisoner challenging his capital murder convictions and the resulting four death sentences imposed on him.  Among other claims, petitioner asserted that the prosecutor's Biblical references during closing arguments at the sentencing phase of his trial violated the Establishment Clause and urged jurors to rely on impermissible factors in reaching their decision. The court disagreed, pointing out that the prosecutor:
asked the jury to apply the secular law given to them, and she used a familiar reference to argue that point. The reign of King Herod and his death from a painful disease, are historical fact, and her comments concerning the slaughter of children referenced a story in a book. That the comments have a religious connotation does not render the argument inherently religious....
Moreover, [the prosecutor's] reference to "God's law" was responsive to Petitioner's own arguments..... [Her] statements were not an endorsement of extrajudicial authority for imposing a sentence of death. Her statements were more akin to familiar Proverbs and parables that are used to support arguments outside of a religious context.... [T]here was no prosecutorial suggestion that personal responsibility for the sentence did not ultimately rest with the jury, and the comments did not suggest that religious principles, rather than the law, applied.