December 15, 2009
God Is Not A Witness
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has affirmed a conviction and death penalty in an horrific case in involving the murder of a student who had just completed her graduation requirements from the University of Oklahoma and was preparing to go home for the Christmas holidays. The court rejected a claim of prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument, as the prosecutor's brief reference to heavenly judgment was invited by the defense argument in the sentencing phase:
The prosecutor’s brief personal reflections about the forgiveness of God “were no more than an adversarial balance to Appellant’s positions on religion.” The argument did not, as Appellant hyperbolically contends, reassure jurors “that they, too, would be forgiven for imposing the death penalty;” nor did it “encourage the jury to follow biblical standards rather than the Court’s instructions."
The court described the defense arguement:
Defense counsel’s sentencing stage closing argument shared a personal anecdote of how he “lost a lot of friends when I became a death penalty attorney” and why his work as a capital defense attorney was important: “Because there has to be fairness before we kill—before the Government kills in the United States of America.” Defense counsel then argued that from his years of experience with capital defendants:
[T]hose [prisoners] who suffer most are the ones that have to think about what they’ve done. That’s why life without parole is such a serious and damning punishment . . . they know as the clock ticks away, that they’re going to meet their Maker. Everybody does.
Everyone in this courtroom is hurting, and everyone will leave here today, and will always hurt. [The prosecutor] indicated he had, I believe, a daughter that’s now 18. I have a daughter that’s 8 who’s a ballerina. This is the last time I get to speak to you on behalf of Anthony Sanchez. I ask you to focus on fairness and mercy. I don’t have much to offer you. But it is your decision, it’s not the world’s. I would make him think for as long as possible what he has done. He will meet his maker. But let that be on other people’s or God’s time.
The court warned:
Our decisions on this subject serve to warn that a prosecutor who calls upon Heaven to witness the State’s cause against the capital defendant will needlessly imperil the earthly judgment of the District Court. But the religious statements made by counsel for both parties here were brief and insignificant in view of the overwhelming evidence of aggravating circumstances, which clearly explain the jury’s verdict. We find no prosecutorial misconduct warranting reversal or modification of the sentence.
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