A federal appeals court has reinstated the death sentence for a convicted murderer after a lower court agreed to spare his life in 2000 because a juror had improperly used biblical quotes during the initial sentencing phase.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed Stevie Lamar Fields’ 1979 conviction for the rape and murder of a college student, but said the use of biblical phrases, including “eye for eye,” in the case did not prejudice the jury.
“Both the Biblical verses and the other concepts contained in the notes are notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make,” Judge Pamela Ann Rymer wrote for the majority.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court had reinstated Fields’ death sentence last year, but that ruling was cast aside when the full court agreed to hear the case.
Three judges, led by Judge Marsha Berzon, dissented the court’s ruling on Monday. Berzon said the juror’s obvious conflicts should result in a retrial.
Fields, 50, was on parole in 1978 after doing time for a manslaughter conviction when he went on a three-week spree of rape, robbery and violence that included the slaying of 26-year-old Rosemary Cobbs, University of Southern California librarian.
A Los Angeles County jury found him guilty of the attacks in 1979 and sentenced him to death.
After decades of appeals, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California tossed the death penalty and sentenced Fields to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The court concluded that a juror who made a list of biblical arguments for and against the death penalty had the potential to be highly prejudicial.
Included on the juror’s list for capital punishment were “placate gods” and “eye for eye,” according to court documents.
Fields’ appellate attorney, David Olson, said the jury’s use of scripture in its sentencing deliberations was a basic violation of criminal law.
California Deputy Attorney General Kristofer Jorstad said if the U.S. Supreme Court rejects review of Fields’ case, the inmate will be fourth in line to be executed.
No executions will take place in California, however, until concerns about the state’s lethal injection method that arose in the case of death row inmate Michael Morales are resolved.
Morales’ execution last year was called off amid questions of whether California inmates suffer too much pain during execution in violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.