Bible ploy backfires

25-year-old Rhonda Maloney’s car was stuck in the snow early one February morning. Robert Harlan stopped, but not to help: he admittedly raped Maloney. Maloney escaped Harlan’s vehicle and flagged down a passing motorist, Jaquie Creazzo. Harlan responded to Creazzo’s rescue attempt by chasing after her, shooting her three times just outside the Thornton, Colorado police station, paralyzing her in the process. Harlan escaped; Maloney’s body, beaten and shot, was found seven days later. DNA and fingerprint evidence led to Harlan, who conceded the act in his trial, but sought to blame it on drugs. Nevertheless, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder.

At the penalty hearing, two women testified that Harlan had sexually assaulted them, as well. The jury was then instructed by the judge, as per Colorado law at the time, to make an “individual moral assessment” in deciding whether Harlan should receive a life sentence or the death penalty. (As a wise judge once noted to me, the judicial system cannot decide whether someone will die, but only when.)

In the closing arguments, Harlan’s attorneys invoked the Bible, and G-d’s mercy on Abraham, and asked the jury to impose a life sentence. With these instructions, some of the jurors allegedly consulted the Bible itself, and one juror says that a few considered the relevant provisions in Leviticus that countenanced a death sentence for murder. Eight years after the trial, the jurors were dragged in front of the court to testify; several jurors denied seeing a Bible in the jury room, but the judge resolved the disagreement by finding that the jurors did consult the Bible. By a 3-2 vote the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed. The death sentence was revoked, and a life sentence without parole was given.

Tough question: we probably don’t want Leviticus to be the law of the land. The pork lobby would never countenance Leviticus 11:7-8. On the other hand, the Colorado Supreme Court acknowledged that it would’ve been appropriate for a juror to speak the phrase “eye for an eye” in the course of argument during deliberations. And, indeed, during the voir dire, Harlan’s attorney asked one of the jurors about his feeling about that maxim. If jurors can be trusted with following the law in the face of an oral discussion, why does the written word have such power to cloud jurors’ minds? The precedent won’t matter much: Colorado changed its law in 1999 to have judges determine death sentences, though, of course, Ring v. Arizona put the jury back in charge of the decision. It seems a hair was split awfully thin to overturn a death sentence. The dissent seems to have the better of of the argument. (People v. Harlan (Colo. Mar. 28, 2005)); People v. Harlan, 8 P.3d 448 (Colo. 2000); Kirk Johnson, “Colorado Court Bars Execution Because Jurors Consulted Bible”, NY Times, Mar. 29; History Channel documentary; “Murderers’ Row”, Westword, Jun. 7, 2001; Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar press release, Jun. 24, 2002). The Coloradoans Against the Death Penalty page on the case has additional links. Why didn’t the Court let a new jury resolve the question instead of simply impose a life sentence? I don’t know the answer to that.

Side trivia note: in November 2001, Justin Goetz, armed with three firearms, set the Creazzo family’s car on fire and threatened to shoot his ex-girlfriend, Creazzo’s daughter–but the paralyzed Creazzo defended herself by shooting Goetz first. (Sue Lindsay, “Man sentenced in bid to gun down good Samaritan (17 years in slay attempt)”, Rocky Mountain News, Oct. 3, 2002; AWARE page on Creazzo).


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