Death sentence reversed because prosecutor cited Bible

Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Georgia’s high court has reversed a death sentence because the prosecuting attorney cited Christian precepts when asking the jury to sentence a convicted murderer to be executed.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Georgia voted 6-1 to affirm the murder conviction of Anthony Carruthers, but to reverse his death sentence because an assistant Clayton County prosecutor cited passages from the Old and New Testaments during the trial’s sentencing phase. A new jury must now determine Carruthers’ punishment.

At the close of Carruthers’ trial, Brandon Hornsby, the assistant Clayton County prosecutor, urged jurors to send a message to violent criminals by allowing the state to put Carruthers to death.

During his argument for the death penalty, Hornsby instructed jurors that “the Bible suggests to us why deterrence is appropriate.” He said the New Testament Book of Romans “tells us that every person is subject to the governing authority … . And in Matthew it tells us, who sheddeth man’s blood … shall his blood be shed … . For all they who take the sword shall die by the sword, and his (God’s) is a message that is very clear, that society must deter criminals.”

Justice Norman S. Fletcher, writing for the majority in Carruthers v. State, noted that the state high court had previously held that “biblical references inject the often irrelevant and inflammatory issue of religion into the sentencing process and improperly appeal to the religious beliefs of jurors in their decision on whether a person should live or die.”

Fletcher, moreover, said that unlike “biblical law, Georgia law gives the jury the discretion to recommend life imprisonment or death, provides stringent procedures and safeguards that must be followed during the trial, and permits the jury to impose the death penalty only in limited circumstances.”

Hornsby, the majority of justices concluded, overstepped the bounds of citing religious dogma in penalty arguments, when he quoted Scripture “as mandating a death sentence.”

“In citing specific passages, he invoked a higher moral authority and diverted the jury from the discretion provided to them under state law,” Fletcher wrote. “One passage cited explicitly states that whoever sheds another person’s blood shall have his own blood shed by man; another states that those ‘who take the sword shall die by the sword.’ Language of command and obligation from a source other than Georgia law should not be presented to a jury.”

Justice George H. Carley, the sole dissenter, agreed that while state precedent does bar using religious mandates in arguing for the death penalty, it nonetheless says prosecutors “may allude to such principles of divine law, relating to transactions of man as may be appropriate to the case.”

Carley argued that Hornsby’s biblical references neither prejudiced the jury nor questioned Carrurther’s own religious beliefs, but were only used to “illustrate the secular justification for the death penalty.”

“Simply put, the majority reverses Carruthers’ death penalty because the Assistant District Attorney made a passionate, but proper, argument and was successful in obtaining the maximum punishment for the murder of which Carruthers was convicted,” Carley wrote. “A reversal of the death sentence on this basis runs counter to the long-standing principle that ‘the range of discussion (during closing argument) is wide — very wide.’”