My name is Sandra Taylor-Petersen, and I am a Catholic. I live in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana and I was recently excluded from jury duty for a capital murder trial.
I joined the other jurors at the courthouse and was asked to fill out a questionnaire, which included a question about how I felt about the death penalty. I wrote that I am opposed to the death penalty on religious, moral, and philosophical grounds.
Next, they called a handful of us into the jury box and asked us to rate our ability to impose a death sentence on a scale from 1-5. I was the first one to be questioned by the prosecutors and I said that I was a 5, meaning I would not consider the death penalty as an option. The prosecutor asked me again, “Are you sure you’re a 5? There’s no way you would budge from that?” and I said that I would not budge. I was excused from jury service after that. If it were not for the death penalty issue, I think they would have seated me on that jury.
I remember being confused about the instructions for the penalty phase. The law seemed to be inconsistent. On the one hand, it allowed individuals on the jury to rule according to their conscience during the penalty phase. On the other hand, the law prohibited those exercising their moral convictions or conscience from ever getting on such a jury. Even though the process was meant to throw out the “absolutes” and the “extremes,” in practice it’s clear that people either favor the death penalty or they don’t. Not many people sit right in the middle and would consider both options equally. So the jury ends up being people who favor it.
I also feel that there is an implicit bias that seems to be expressed in the law, which is that people with strong moral or religious convictions cannot be “reasonable” or “objective” or “impartial” or able to differentiate truth from falsity. I felt the prosecutors and the court were saying that if you have religious or moral views, you could not make an objective decision about this man’s guilt or sentence. I highly object to that apparent, yet unstated, implication in jury selection.
I would have liked to serve on that jury, but we just don’t have the opportunity and that’s unfair. For those of us opposed to the death penalty because of our religious principles, we knew we would not serve on a capital jury because of the way the law is set up. There was no way for me to get onto that jury without lying about my moral beliefs on the death penalty. We should have a right to voice our opinions on the death penalty as part of a jury that is making a moral determination on behalf of the community.
Adrienne Jones Daly
My name is Adrienne Jones Daly, and I am a Christian. I live in Orleans Parish in Louisiana and I was recently excluded from jury duty for a capital trial.
On the first day of jury selection, I entered the jury box with other potential jurors, where we were introduced to the judge, lawyers, and the defendant. The judge explained the case and the law, including what was required for the death penalty to be invoked. It was implied that if the crime met certain requirements, the death penalty would be the recommended sentence. My position on capital punishment was cemented when I saw the defendant in the courtroom. I remember looking at him and thinking, “That’s a person. How can I possibly condemn another person to death?”
For me, my position on the death penalty is strongly tied to my faith, but I do not blindly follow religion. I thought about the death penalty in great depth before reaching my current stance.
It bothers me to realize that because I could not impose a death sentence, I was considered biased in the eyes of the law and unqualified to serve on a capital jury. If it wasn’t for death qualification, I believe I would have been chosen as a juror. I think I am a reasonable and impartial person. I believe in upholding justice as well as respect for our fellow human beings. A person who commits a crime should be punished, and I think a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is a severe punishment.
I am disappointed that I was prohibited from having a voice in an important process and am unable to fulfill my duty as a citizen because of my philosophical views. You realize that your voice has an impact and that your civic duty is very important when you see how your decision can influence someone’s life, especially whether they live or die. It is frustrating that others who share my philosophical and moral views are not allowed to have a voice in that process and are excluded from serving on capital juries. Excluding people who are opposed to the death sentence creates partiality and bias in our justice system.
In the early ’90s I received a card telling me to report for jury duty. It was a first degree murder trial of a young black man who was accused of killing an older white woman. There was some question as to whether he was somewhat mentally challenged. On the day I reported, there were quite a number of prospective jurors present. I assume they were questioning us alphabetically (I was a Walker then) because they never got to me on that first day, so I was told to return the next day.
I am so grateful for that time that was given me because I had time to really try to become aware of what I truly thought of capital punishment, something I had never done at this point in my life. It was one of the turning points, I feel, in my spiritual journey.
I did not sleep well that night because I was not at peace. That was when I realized I must decide one way or the other. It became apparent that this was not a “fence riding” issue for me. I could not and would not say that another human being must die for the crime committed because it was, in my mind morally wrong. One human being does not have the right to say another has to die, ever.
When I reported to the courthouse the next day, I was called in for questions from the lawyers in the case and was able to state without equivocation that I could not say that this man or any other should be put to death. I knew enough to know that this would probably exclude me from the jury, but I remember a vague feeling that this should not be so. It wasn’t much longer that I read Sr. Helen’s book and was affirmed in my decision.
I firmly believe that the practice of excluding me from serving in capital cases because I am morally opposed to capital punishment is usurping my right to serve as a citizen of this democracy. It also seems grossly unfair to the one who’s on trial. How can that be “fair and impartial”? Given the opportunity, I want to serve!