Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Consulting 'A Higher Power'

The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld a decision of a lower court to dismiss a jury death penalty on the basis of a bible consultation on the part of some of the jurors. In particular, one juror consulted Leviticus, the 'eye for an eye' book, and the majority verdict was arrived at because she had ostenibly referred to 'a higher power' than the court itself in considering her decision. The court was split 3-2, and the case may yet find its way to the Federal Supreme Court. The case offers some brief respite from what is becoming an onslaught of bible-thumping in the ascendancy in GWBII America, though one suspects that the strength of the minority indicates that this is something of an anomaly.

Colorado is unique in the US in that its law requires a direction to the jury in such cases that they make an 'individual moral assessment'. The majority judgement stated that '...the judicial system works very hard to emphasize the rarified, solemn and sequestered nature of jury deliberations. Jurors must deliberate in that atmosphere without the aid or distraction of extraneous texts.'

The juxtaposition of an 'individual moral assessment' with the absence of 'extraneous texts' is indeed tricky when that extraneous text is perhaps the basis upon which one makes a moral assessment. For the minority, the bible acted as a source of wisdom, not overt morality. Indeed, the bible offers as much guidance in favour of mercy as it does against. It is a book of contradictions and justifications. In legal terms, if it were a statute, its openness to interpretation would be so broad as to make it unusable. But this is not the point.

The court in this instance asserted its separation from religion. As an organ of state, it should not be driven by the non-secular preachings of any church. Where, then, lies the basis for a moral assessment where the state professes no position? If the state does not lead in matters of morality, but rather acknowledges and codifies that which it deems its people believe to be right and wrong, why have juries at all? For the juries themselves draw from disparate sources, from Religion and God to TV and the Simpsons. The presumption on the part of the court that an innate morality will direct people to the appropriate decision assigns to the juror a capacity for internal moral dialogue that is often absent. The bible acts for many people as a guide when they simply do not know the way. And, if they do not know the way, should they abdicate such lofty decisions to their moral mentor, or to another citizen capable of having that internal moral dialogue?

Which brings us, once more, to the masses and the state. Simplistic reasoning that is influenced by narrow experience and perhaps inadequate education, leads us all down an arbitrary path. To have one's life placed in the hands of 'the common man' is to have one's life placed in the hands of people who rarely retain unbreakable principles, and who are socialised into conformity. Let us think about this for a moment, and extend the decision to support a Government that kills thousands of innocent civilians in pre-emptive wars, tortures, maims and murders defenceless prisoners, destroys entire races and oppresses millions through external economic interference. Are we comfortable that 'the common man' is having his own 'internal moral dialogue', and making the right choice?

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