Our nation was founded on a belief in fairness and justice, and the principle that anyone charged with a crime was entitled to a jury of peers acting as the conscience of the community. Moreover, from its founding, America has held firm that no religious test should ever be imposed on a citizen in the fulfillment of his duties. Nowhere do these principles of faith matter more, than when a state decides to seek the death penalty.
This week, the Louisiana Supreme Court began hearing the capital appeal of 25-year-old Rodricus Crawford.
Crawford was convicted by a Caddo Parish jury of first-degree murder in 2013 with nominal evidence. That same jury sentenced Crawford to death after prosecutor Dale Cox argued that it's what Jesus would do.
Caddo Parish has been highlighted by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard as an outlier county, responsible for a disproportionate number of death sentences. The report identifies the combination of overzealous prosecutors, overwhelmed defense lawyers, and racism as the reason for these disproportionate death sentences.
A study done on Caddo Parish showed that African Americans are struck from death penalty cases at three times the rate of nonblack jurors. Discrimination based upon race or religion is anathema to the core values of the state and the country. And yet, a new empirical study indicates that roughly a quarter of those called for jury service in Louisiana capital cases were disqualified for their religious views. Sixty percent of African-Americans were removed based upon their conscientious views on the death penalty.
As opposition to the death penalty increases, the percentage of citizens excluded from this process will also grow. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015 showed that a majority of Catholics prefer life in prison without the opportunity for parole to a death sentence, and for that they can be dismissed from their civil service. In a state that is one-third Catholic and one-third African-American, these exclusions result in a jury that no longer represents the accused “peers” and cannot be the conscience of the community. Even worse, at the time where a citizens' moral, religious, and conscientious views matter the most, they are allowed to exercise them the least.
It is simply illogical that jurors, whose purpose is to reflect the moral conscience of the community, should be excluded from a jury because of their religious faith. Whether an accused person lives or dies is our legal system’s most difficult and consequential decision. The jury's verdict is intended to represent the "moral judgment of the community." If people who are opposed to the death penalty based upon their religion, we end up with a decision that may well be absent the very moral conscience that we value most.
We need a system that acknowledges self-transformation, grace and redemption; a system that doesn’t predetermine a person’s fate by discriminating based upon race or religion. Removing jurors based upon their religious beliefs violates our most basic principle. When Louisiana seeks to execute a citizen, it does so in the name of all of its citizens. And yet it does not permit me to say, not in my name.
Crawford’s case is perhaps the worst perversion of this principle. After excluding from the jury all those who opposed the death penalty based upon their religious views, the prosecutor argued to those remaining that the teachings of Jesus Christ required the imposition of the death penalty on Rodericus Crawford. More than 100 members of the clergy filed an amicus brief at the Louisiana Supreme Court, explaining that the prosecutor’s argument was both wrong as a matter of faith, and improper as a matter of justice. We hope the court will listen.
Alex Mikulich is assistant professor of African and African American Studies at Loyola University of New Orleans.