The Dumbing-Down of America Has Lots of Helpers

GERALD F. UELMEN

December 20, 1991|By GERALD F. UELMEN

Santa Clara, California. - Karl S. Chambers of York, Pennsylvania, was convicted of beating an elderly woman to death with an ax handle because she refused to hand over her wallet. The deputy district attorney told the jury deciding his fate: ''Karl Chambers has taken a life. As the Bible says, 'and the murderer shall be put to death.' '' Defense counsel objected. The trial judge sustained the objection and told the jury to ignore the biblical exhortation.

In a 6-1 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Chambers' death sentence and said a mistrial should have been declared. The sole ground: The prosecutor quoted the Bible. The justices sent a powerful message to prosecutors: ''. . . Reliance in any manner upon the Bible or any other religious writing in support of the imposition of a penalty of death is reversible error per se and may subject violators to disciplinary action.''

That's the wrong message. The best cure for Bible-thumping prosecutors is Bible-thumping defense lawyers. If Karl Chambers were being defended by Clarence Darrow, there wouldn't have even been an objection to the prosecutor's argument. Darrow would simply have pulled a Bible out of his beat-up briefcase and turned to Exodus. He would have reminded the jurors that the same Bible that commands the death of murderers also commands the execution of adulterers, witches, those who have sex with animals, and anyone who reviles or curses his mother or father.

He would have noted that the Bible contains some curious exceptions, such as the one for a man who beats his slave to death. ''If the slave does not die for a couple of days, then the man shall not be punished -- for the slave is his property.'' Finally, Darrow would have turned to the New Testament, and read to the jurors the words of Jesus Christ when invited to participate in an execution: ''Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.''

The point is not whether the Bible supports or condemns capital punishment. Jurors are intelligent enough to give the Bible the weight it deserves, and lawyers should be free to address jurors as though they are intelligent human beings. A former California Court of Appeal justice, Robert Gardner, said: ''A juror is not some kind of a dithering nincompoop, brought in from never-never-land and exposed to the harsh realities of life for the first time in the jury box.''

All too often, the dithering nincompoops in today's courtrooms are the lawyers and the judges. One cannot read the great jury arguments by lawyers of the past and not be impressed by all the literary and biblical allusions at their command. They were widely read, and they rightly assumed that the jurors they addressed were, too. Consider Darrow's denunciation of the informer Harry Orchard in the trial of Bill Haywood for the murder of Idaho's Gov. Frank Steunenberg:

''Why, gentlemen, if Harry Orchard were George Washington, who had come into a court of justice with his great name behind FTC him, and if he was impeached and contradicted by as many as Harry Orchard has been, George Washington would go out of it disgraced and counted the Ananias of the age.''

If Darrow were a prosecutor, that argument would be reversible per se in Pennsylvania. The reference to Ananias comes from Chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles, where Ananias was struck dead upon lying to the apostle Peter. The allusion would not be lost on modern jurors. They still read the Bible occasionally. It's the lawyers who don't.

The dumbing-down of America has lots of helpers -- including six justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. It's doubtful that their decision will save any murderers from execution. It may not even help Karl Chambers, who faces a new penalty trial with no Bibles allowed. But their decision will certainly render courtrooms more sterile, colorless and divorced from the flesh-and-blood lives of ordinary people. Just like classrooms, legislatures and governors' mansions.

Gerald F. Uelmen is dean of the school of law at Santa Clara University. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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