HOUSTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away a challenge from a Texas death row inmate who claimed his constitutional rights were violated by jurors who consulted a Bible.
In the appeal, Khristian Oliver's defense said jurors reviewed a biblical passage stating that a murderer who used an iron object to kill "shall surely be put to death." Jurors were deciding whether to sentence Oliver to death for shooting and bludgeoning his victim with the barrel of a gun.
The court previously has said jurors should base their verdicts only on evidence presented in the courtroom.
State and lower federal courts upheld Oliver's death sentence, despite testimony that some jurors in the Nacogdoches County case consulted the biblical passage.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year said jurors wrongly used the Bible but said there wasn't enough evidence to show they were prejudiced when they decided to send Oliver to death row in 1999.
Oliver's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and the high court Monday refused.
"It's a big disappointment," attorney Winston Cochran said. "With a life at stake, I think they needed to be a little bit more open-minded."
Oliver, 31, from Waco, was condemned for the slaying of Joe Collins, 64, during a March 1998 break-in at Collins' rural East Texas home. Three of Oliver's companions received prison terms ranging from five to 99 years.
At issue was a passage in Chapter 35 of Numbers which, in the New American Standard Bible, reads: "But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death." Some translations refer to the weapon as an "iron rod."
Collins was shot and then struck with the barrel of a gun, which Cochran said could be likened to an iron rod.
Prosecutors had argued there never was an implication jurors voted based on Scripture or had any kind of religious discussion.
Defense lawyers interviewing jurors after Oliver's capital murder trial discovered jurors had had Bibles with them. But at a hearing, jurors gave differing testimony on whether there was one Bible or several present and on what their purpose was. One said any reading from the books came after they had reached a decision.
"There is contradictory evidence regarding whether the jurors' consultation of the Bible occurred before or after the jury reached its decision," the 5th Circuit said in its ruling in the case. It said that Oliver's appeal failed to present clear evidence that the Bible's use "had a substantial and injurious effect."
Collins was slain when he returned to his home to find Oliver, then 20, and 16-year-old Benny Rubalcaba inside. Two other companions were waiting outside.
As Oliver and Rubalcaba tried to run away, Collins got a rifle and shot Rubalcaba in the leg. Oliver fired his pistol at Collins, then grabbed the man's rifle and beat him with it. Evidence showed Collins was shot five times and suffered multiple skull fractures.