Bible citation disallowed in sentencing

May 27, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, acting on a York, Pa., murder case, left the impression yesterday that prosecutors will be in trouble if they rely upon the Bible in trying to persuade juries to impose a death sentence.

Without comment, the court voted to leave intact a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declaring that any death sentence is void if a prosecutor used a "religious writing," including the Bible, as justification for the death penalty.

The state court ruled in the case of Karl S. Chambers of York, convicted of first-degree murder for beating an elderly woman to death with an ax handle so he could rob her of the money she got by cashing her Social Security check. Chambers had seen her handling the money as she bought groceries at a York store in February 1986.

Chambers' conviction was upheld by the state court, but not the death sentence. The state court also upheld a robbery conviction, plus a 10-to-20-year sentence for that separate crime.

When the case was in the sentencing phase, a prosecutor told jurors: "Karl Chambers has taken a life. As the Bible says, 'and the murderer shall be put to death.' "

That kind of plea, the state court said in wiping out the death sentence, "is a deliberate attempt to destroy the objectivity and impartiality of the jury. . . . Our courts are not ecclesiastical courts and, therefore, there is no reason to refer to religious rules or commandments to support the imposition of the death penalty."

It said that, hereafter, it would allow no death sentence to stand if the prosecutor had relied "in any manner upon the Bible or any other religious writing."

Chambers is now entitled to a new sentencing hearing -- but not necessarily a sentence other than death.

The Supreme Court's order yesterday simply denied review of that outcome, meaning they considered the issue unworthy for review.

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