Inmate’s Satanism can be factor in sentencing

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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Prosecutors did not violate a convict’s First Amendment rights when they introduced evidence in the punishment phase of a death-penalty trial about his conversion to Satanism, a Texas court has ruled.

In 2002, a jury convicted Irving Alvin Davis of murdering a 15-year-old girl while attempting to sexually assault her in El Paso, Texas, in June 2001. Davis, who was 18 at the time of the offense, was sentenced to death. In 2007, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, upheld his murder conviction but reversed on the question of punishment. The appeals court sent the case back down for a new punishment hearing. In February 2008, a new trial court jury recommended a death sentence.

In his latest appeal, Davis raised numerous issues. Among those was his contention that the trial judge erred in allowing the state to present evidence of his conversion to Satanism in 2005. The prosecutor introduced Davis’ prison records, writings, drawings and a pentagram etched into his body as evidence of his Satanism. During the trial, the prosecution had Davis stand up, remove his shirt and show the pentagram tattoo to the jury.

An expert witness for the state testified about the beliefs and practices of Satanism, including human sacrifice and mutilation “in the name of Satan.” The prosecution argued that all the evidence of conversion to Satanism was relevant to the question of future dangerousness — a key question in the punishment phase of a capital case.

Davis countered that introducing such evidence infringed upon his free-association and religious-freedom rights. The First Amendment protects freedom of association by allowing individuals to join groups of like-minded individuals, while it also broadly protects freedom of religion — even those faiths that many feel are on the fringe.

The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the prosecution in its Sept. 29 opinion Davis v. State of Texas.

The court acknowledged that the First Amendment protects “an individual’s right to join groups and associate with others holding similar beliefs.” However, it noted that the First Amendment did not bar evidence about beliefs and associations at sentencing hearings if they were relevant to the case. “Future dangerousness is an issue that is relevant to the sentencing stage of a capital-murder trial,” the court wrote.

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