LIVINGSTON, Texas – The death sentence of a Texas man is under scrutiny because jurors at his trial had Bibles with them when they decided he should be executed
Jurors sentenced Khristian Oliver to the death penalty in 1999 after he was convicted of brutally killing a 64-year-old man during a home break-in.
His lawyers contend jurors improperly relied on religious beliefs that called for death as punishment for murder.
"This is headed toward a showdown on a very fundamental question on the use of the Bible," Winston Cochran, Oliver's lawyer, said.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month upheld the conviction and denied his request for a hearing on the Bible-related claims, but agreed to consider written arguments and then hold oral arguments.
In their ruling Nov. 16, the judges asked lawyers to explain whether the jurors' consultation of the Bible amounted to "an external influence that raises a presumption of prejudice."
At issue is a verse 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." Other versions of the Bible have similar passages, some of them referring to an "iron rod" as the weapon.
Special Prosecutor Sue Korioth said there never was an implication jurors voted based on Scripture or had any kind of religious discussion.
"Several of them carried Bibles in and out like my daughter carries her "Seventeen" magazine," she said. "It was just their reading material."
At a state district court hearing two months after the trial, four jurors testified about the presence of Bibles in the jury room and gave varying accounts, ranging from one Bible to several being present. One juror testified he and fellow jurors carried the books with them because they would go to Bible study in the evenings following the day's court proceedings.
Another juror testified any reading from the books came after they had reached a decision. A third said the reading of Scripture was intended to make people feel better about their decision.
Oliver is at a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison where inmates undergo treatment for psychiatric conditions and could not be interviewed.
Cochran had until the end of December to present written briefs to the court. Prosecutors will then have an opportunity to respond. Oral arguments before the New Orleans-based court are not likely until later in 2008.