A juror’s dilemma: The wrenching job of deciding another person’s right to live

November 9, 2017

In a federal courtroom in Greensboro last week, attorneys were parsing a single conversation between a juror and a religious adviser, which took place during a capital trial more than 20 years earlier. It wasn’t the stuff of juicy news headlines. But it did serve to remind us of a little-known aspect of the death penalty: Its impact on jurors who must make life-and-death decisions.

The court was weighing whether a N.C. death row inmate, Russell Tucker, should get a new sentencing hearing because, during his 1996 trial, a juror asked a trusted person what the Bible says about the death penalty and sitting in judgment of others. The juror received an answer that he says allowed him to vote for the death penalty.

Conducting research and seeking advice seems like a logical thing to do when you are given a task as momentous as deciding whether a human being should live or die. Yet, capital jurors are not allowed to do it. They are not even allowed to talk the case through with a spouse or close friend. If they break the rules, they risk being charged with a crime.

There are good reasons for the law. Decisions in criminal cases must be based only on the evidence presented in the courtroom and the law as explained by the judge, not on a confusing array of private investigations and outside advice. Jurors have a solemn duty to decide without inappropriate influence or pressure, and it is critical that they not be swayed by someone else’s feelings or beliefs about the case.

But this necessity puts capital jurors in the uncomfortable position of having to make a life-changing decision without any of their usual support networks.

The Tucker case was actually the third N.C. death row case in the past two years to go to federal court because a juror sought outside spiritual advice. In all three cases, we are awaiting the court’s ruling on whether the defendants will get new sentences.

In William Barnes’ case, a juror asked her pastor which side was correct after the prosecutor and defense attorney offered opposing biblical perspectives on the death penalty in their closing arguments.

And in Jason Hurst’s case, a juror asked her father for advice about which sentence to choose. He directed her to a Bible passage about “eye for an eye.” The next day, she voted for the death penalty.

As long as we ask jurors to make profound and extraordinary moral decisions, we will continue to see well-meaning citizens end up on the hot seat. The fact is, we should never have put them in the wrenching position of deciding another person’s right to live.