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The California Supreme Court upheld a death sentence Monday, even though two jurors reached their decision after reading the Bible and consulting with their pastors. While the high court ruled 4-3 that their actions constituted misconduct, the court also held that it was harmless error. Even though Christian beliefs about capital punishment were discussed during deliberations and both pastors said they would impose the ultimate penalty if it were their choice, the court said the jury wasn’t prejudiced. “While this case involves religious beliefs, an intensely private area,” Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote, “we are unwilling to ascribe to any perceived stereotype that jurors who receive advice from Christian spiritual leaders, or are exposed to Biblical passages, per se suffer a diminished sense of responsibility for their penalty verdict.” The majority also found nothing wrong with jurors bringing their own “personal religious, philosophical or secular normative values” into death penalty deliberations. “That they do is one of the strengths of the jury system,” Brown wrote. “It is also one of its weaknesses; it has the potential to undermine determinations that should be made exclusively on the evidence introduced by the parties and the instructions given by the court. Such a weakness, however, must be tolerated.” Brown was joined by Justices Marvin Baxter, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Ming Chin. In response, Justices Joyce Kennard and Carlos Moreno issued separate concurring and dissenting rulings, saying they would have upheld the murder conviction, but not the death sentence. “Not one, but two jurors were impermissibly influenced by extraneous information they solicited outside the deliberative process,” Moreno wrote. “The integrity of this trial was undermined, these two jurors were not impartial and this verdict should not stand.” Chief Justice Ronald George concurred with both Kennard and Moreno. Joseph Martin Danks, who was 30 at the time of his trial, was sentenced to death in 1993 for killing Walter Holt, his 67-year-old cellmate at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. Danks, who choked Holt to death with bed sheets in 1990, was serving a sentence of 156 years to life for murdering six homeless people in Los Angeles. During the penalty phase of Danks’ Kern County trial, jurors identified only as K.A. and B.P. became stressed over the pending decision. Both talked to their pastors — who said they would choose death for Danks if they could — and consulted 12 verses from the Bible’s Book of Numbers, which essentially call for the execution of anyone who commits murder. “The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death,” the verses say in part. “When he meets him, he shall put him to death.” In her majority opinion, Brown said that the two women had not discussed the case with their pastors, but had only sought advice about their faith’s view on capital punishment. Brown also said the two hadn’t influenced other jurors by discussing their readings and pastoral advice during deliberations. “After exhaustive appellate review, we have concluded there is no substantial likelihood either that the Bible passages or the conversations with the pastors were inherently prejudicial or that they resulted in any juror’s actual bias,” Brown ruled. “In particular,” she continued, “no objective evidence in the record demonstrates a substantial likelihood any juror felt he or she had less of a weighty responsibility of making a penalty determination after these events occurred.” In her separate opinion, Justice Kennard stated that a juror’s receipt of any information not presented in court is misconduct. She also said the advice of a clergyman carries a lot of weight. “For advice and comfort in difficult matters of life and death,” she wrote, “many people turn to their pastor, whose views are likely to carry far more weight than those of a stranger encountered in a restaurant.” State Public Defender Lynne Coffin said Monday that the juror misconduct at issue in the case was “not unusual or particularly startling” in that similar scenarios have arisen in other cases. Even so, she said, it surprised her that the court affirmed. “It’s certainly something you would expect to overturn a death sentence,” Coffin said. “However, the case will go to federal court,” she added. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t save the taxpayers money and reverse these cases without having to go through the federal process.” In their separate rulings, Kennard and Moreno offered another reason Danks should have been spared the death penalty. Jurors, they wrote, should have taken into account that Danks was severely mentally ill, having suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for most of his life. Kennard noted that Danks was convinced there was a conspiracy against him that included the mayor of Los Angeles, the governor of California and the president of the United States. And Moreno pointed out that Danks thought entertainers such as Burt Reynolds and Johnny Carson were sneaking into the prison and excreting into his food. “Surely,” Kennard wrote, “a reasonable juror could have concluded that [Danks'] mental illness diminished his personal culpability to such an extent as to render death an inappropriate penalty.” Danks’ lawyer, Davis, Calif., solo practitioner Musawwir Spiegel, declined comment, saying he hadn’t read the ruling. Deputy Attorney General Lloyd Carter, who argued for the state, said he felt the majority was correct in its ruling, but that Danks’ fate is far from being determined. The state’s Habeas Corpus Resource Center, he said, recently filed a 440-page, 32-issue habeas petition for Danks, raising many of the issues addressed by Monday’s ruling on direct appeal. “That stuff is all still pending,” Carter said. “We fully expect that, subsequent to the resolution of the habeas, [Danks' lawyers] will march right over to federal court.” The ruling is People v. Danks, 04 C.D.O.S. 954.

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