Texas man faces execution after jurors consult Bible to decide fate
A convicted murderer faces execution in Texas after jurors consulted the
Bible while deliberating on his sentence.
Amnesty International has appealed to the state to commute the sentence on
Khristian Oliver, 32, who is due to die on November 5.
He was sentenced to death in 1999 for murdering a man whose home Oliver
was burgling. The victim was shot in the face and beaten with his own
It later emerged that while deciding whether he should be given the death
penalty, jurors consulted the Bible. Four jury members admitted that
several copies had been in the jury room and that highlighted passages
were passed around.
At one point, a juror reportedly read aloud from a copy, including the
passage: "And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die,
he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death."
Defence lawyers argued in appeals that jurors had been improperly
influenced by the Bibles but the trial judge rejected the claim, a
decision upheld by a Texas appeals court.
The US constitution calls for the separation of state and religion. In
2005, the state supreme court in Colorado overturned a death penalty on a
convicted murderer because jurors had consulted the Bible while
deliberating over his sentence.
Commuting Robert Harlan's sentence to life imprisonment without parole,
the court ruled that the Bible constituted an "improper outside influence"
and a reliance on what it called a "higher authority".
However, a federal appeals court ruled last year that while the Bible
should not have been allowed into the deliberation room at Oliver's trial,
there was no clear evidence to indicate they had influenced the jurors'
decision. In April this year, the US Supreme Court refused to hear
Kate Allen, Amnesty International's UK director, said Oliver's trial was a
"Religious texts provide consolation and spiritual guidance for billions
of people the world over, but this use of the Bible to decide life or
death in a capital trial is deeply, deeply troubling," she said.
(source: Amnesty International)
US authorities urged to overturn death sentence after jury consulted
Bible—-Jurors read from scripture as they deliberated on whether
Khristian Oliver should be sentenced to death
The Texas jury didn't hesitate to find Khristian Oliver guilty of shooting
and bludgeoning an elderly man to death. Oliver had stood over his
bleeding victim, repeatedly hitting him in the head with a rifle butt
before robbing his house.
But then came the difficult decision over whether to sentence Oliver to
death, and that's when the Bibles came into their own.
A clutch of jurors huddled in the corner with one reading aloud from the
Book of Numbers: "The murderer shall surely be put to death" and "The
revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer."
Another juror highlighted passages which she showed to a fellow juror:
"And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, the murderer shall surely
be put to death."
10 years later Oliver, now 32, is just 3 weeks from execution. 2 appeals
courts have rejected his pleas for the jury's death sentence in 1999 to be
overturned on the grounds it was improperly influenced by references to
the Bible. Some of the jurors have made no secret of the part their
religious beliefs played in reaching their decision but the US supreme
court has refused to take up a case that has been condemned as "a
Amnesty International has said the use of biblical references "to decide
life or death in a capital trial is deeply, deeply troubling" and called
on the authorities in Texas, which has carried out nearly half of the 39
executions in the US this year, to commute the sentence.
Oliver's lawyers called four members of the jury that convicted him to
testify at an appeal hearing. At the hearing, one of them, Kenneth McHaney
described how another juror, Kenneth Grace, read the Bible aloud to a
group of jurors.
Donna Matheny showed McHaney a Bible in which she highlighted passages
including one that "says that if a man strikes someone with an iron object
so that he dies, then he is a murderer and should be put to death".
Maxine Symmank told the court that she too had read a passage from the
Book of Numbers: "And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that
he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death."
Another juror, Michael Brenneisen, told a journalist in 2002 that he asked
himself "Is this the way the Lord would decide the case?" But Brenneisen
also said that in discussing the Bible the jury "went both directions in
our use of the scripture – forgiveness and judgement".
McHaney said there were about 4 Bibles in the jury room.
A Texas state appeal court rejected Oliver's plea to strike down the
sentence because, it said, he had not "presented clear and convincing
evidence" that the Bible influenced the jury's decision. The court
acknowledged that there was reference to the Bible by the jurors but said
it was not improper. It said "a conscientious, dedicated" jury was
"uninfluenced by any outside influence of any kind shown to the court in
A federal appeal court disagreed, saying that references to the Bible
inside the jury room were improper but it still refused to overturn the
death sentence on the grounds that Oliver's lawyers had not proved that
the readings influenced the death penalty decision. The court ruled that
the jurors would have applied their own moral judgements which would, in
any case, have been influenced by their religious beliefs.
Oliver's lawyer until last month, Winston Cochran, said the rulings are
the result of an impossible situation in which he was prevented at the
first appeal hearing from directly asking the jurors if the Bible readings
had an influence on their decision. The federal court then turned down a
subsequent appeal on the grounds that the jurors had not explicitly said
they were swayed by the Bible.
"We were prohibited from asking the question we were later being asked to
prove," he said.
Cochran also criticised the appeal court view that jurors were merely
applying moral beliefs they already held.
"The problem is there was testimony the Bible was passed around and shown
to people. It was part of the discussion. It wasn't just used by
individuals to reinforce their existing belief," he said.
With the supreme court refusing to take up Oliver's case, his remaining
options are the Texas board of pardons and the state governor, Rick Perry.
The board of pardons rarely recommends clemency and Perry is unlikely to
set aside a death sentence in a deeply religious state on the grounds that
jurors referred to the Bible.
Perry has in any case shown no interest in revisiting controversial death
penalty cases. This week he described a man executed in 2004 for burning
his three children to death as a "monster" despite a growing body of
evidence that he was wrongly convicted on spurious scientific evidence.
Perry described claims that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent as
anti-death penalty propaganda.
"Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children,
who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those
kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this
case," he said.
Perry has sacked some members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission
just as they were about to review a new scientific report highly critical
of the evidence used to convict Willingham. If the commission had decided
the evidence was flawed, it could have led to the first official admission
of a wrongful execution in Texas.
"Getting all tied up in the process here frankly is a deflection of what
people across this state and this country need to be looking at," Perry
(source: The Independent)
Waco artists' work influenced by son on death row
For 25 years, Waco artists Kermit and Katie Oliver have lived gently in
their East Waco home, raising a family while Kermit worked the night shift
at the Waco post office on State Highway 6, painting in the mornings.
In Houston art circles and beyond, where Kermit's drawings and paintings
were sold, his deliberate avoidance of the limelight was curious. A man
who designed stunning scarves for Paris House of Hermes and whose works
hung in private collections across the Southwest seemed happiest when left
alone to his art.
That quietude began to crack in 1999 when a Nacogdoches County jury
sentenced the couples younger son Khristian, then 20, to death for the
murder of a 64-year-old man during a burglary. An appeal drew
international attention but was ultimately denied this spring.
This weekend, Kermit and Katie will show their art together with
Khristians in an Art Center Waco exhibit titled "Oliver Retrospective."
Hanging over the show is this fact: Barring a last-minute stay or sentence
commutation, Khristian will be executed Nov. 5.
Sitting in the living room of the two-story home left to her by Waco
grandparents Dr. and Mrs. A.T. Braithwaite, Katie Oliver expressed a quiet
faith that something or someone will intervene in what she sees as an
"For the first few years we were in shock," she said. "We just couldn't
believe what had happened, that he'd been sentenced to death for a crime
he didn't commit, and thought that he'd be released at any time."
Khristian Oliver, a 1998 Waco High School grad, was convicted and
sentenced for the death of Joe Collins, who had surprised Oliver and 2
younger companions while they were breaking into his East Texas home on
March 17, 1998, while Oliver's girlfriend, Sonya Reed, waited in a car.
Collins was shot in the face and beaten brutally with his own rifle. The 2
companions received 5- and 10-year sentences, Reed a 99-year term and
Oliver the death penalty.
Lawyers for Oliver argued in their appeals that the jury had been
improperly swayed by Bibles that some jurors had brought with them into
their deliberations. The case became the subject of a documentary Eye for
an Eye and a book by Danish journalist Egon Clausen.
But the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August 2008 that while
the Bibles should not have been allowed into the deliberation room, there
was no clear evidence to indicate they had affected the jurors' decision.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Oliver's appeal, and on
June 29, 145th District Court Judge Campbell Cox set a Nov. 5 execution
Katie Oliver feels strongly her son is innocent, her belief fortified by a
vision she said she had several years ago in which an angel took her to
the site of the murder, a visit during which she witnessed indications
that another man had killed Collins. She captured that vision in a series
of woodblock images thats framed in their home.
As she detailed that visitation, Kermit Oliver left the room and returned
with a photograph of a young girl, about 11. Its the daughter that
Khristian Oliver never met, a granddaughter whose guardians have stopped
her summer visits to the Olivers.
For 11 years, the Olivers have visited their son on death row, bringing
him books and permissible art supplies. The product of the latter will
appear in the Art Center Waco exhibit, taken from the Olivers home.
A necklace crafted from bits of pencil circles yellow crosses in a framed
work created by Khristian. A smaller, finely painted watercolor of a
waterbird hangs in a sitting room, an example of Khristians control in
"He's focused now," Kermit said with a small smile.
Khristian is the only 1 of the Olivers' 3 children who paints. Eldest
daughter Kristy lives in League City with her 2 children while Kristopher,
the elder son, lives in Waco and works with the Texas Department of Mental
Health and Mental Retardation, Katie said.
Kermit said the ordeal of the last 11 years has been draining but noted
many of his friends, backers and patrons have rallied to help with legal
fees and moral support.
"The continuity of friendship . . . for the last 11 years has been a
godsend," he said.
One longtime friend and supporter is Houston art dealer Geri Hooks, whose
Hooks-Epstein Gallery has represented Kermits works for 20 years. He is,
she says, a talent that too few people know.
"I can't tell you how many galleries and collectors contact me, clamoring
for his work. Kermit is famous in spite of himself," she said. "I would
put him in the top 5 of artists in America today."
Kermit, a native of Refugio, studied art at Texas Southern University in
the 1960s, where he met Katie, also studying art. The 2 married in 1962,
and Kermit began teaching after graduating in 1968. While his painting was
winning praise in the Houston art scene, he found himself increasingly
uncomfortable with the personal promotion demanded of him.
"I'm not a public, outgoing person, but to promote your art, you have to
be that way," he said.
He left teaching to take a job with the U.S. Postal Service in 1978, a
position that provided a steady salary, pension and benefits to care for a
family in a more secure way than an artist's life.
"I havent regretted it since," he said.
The Olivers moved to Waco in 1984, where Kermit continued his postal
service work at night and artwork by day, painting in a sideroom with a
northern exposure and stacks of National Geographic magazines and books.
Kermit's work during his Houston years built his reputation. He was the
first black artist represented by a major gallery, the DuBose Gallery, in
Houston, and his relationship with the House of Hermes started in 1982.
The paintings and scarf designs hes made during his time in Waco have
The last 11 years have shown occasional flashes of the pain and anguish
Kermit felt for his son, as one might expect, Hooks said.
"Every artist who's worth anything at all is affected by whats going on
around them in their lives," she said.
The most emotion was captured in the self-portraits that Kermit did for
every biennial gallery show, she said. "One year, it was so angry, I
didn't recognize it," she said. "I cannot imagine what they're going
Kermit's pain may have shaped one of his most brilliant works, his 2003
"Resurrection," commissioned by Houstons Trinity Episcopal Church for its
The 9-foot altarpiece shows a young, vibrant Christ stepping out of a
tomb, his head wreathed in lilies. Below his feet are symbols of life,
death and resurrection. Behind him, a mushroom cloud and bold orange hue
suggest a power to conquer death.
Resurrection demands attention, Trinity assistant rector Murray Powell
"There are 2 basic, raw emotions that people express: 'What the hell is
it?' and 'Oh, my!' Nobody gets away clean," he said.
Viewers' reaction, in fact, was intense enough that church officials began
locking the chapel after hours for fear someone might damage the work.
One fact chapel visitors may not know that Kermit knows well: The face of
Christ is Khristian's face.
(source: Waco Tribune-Herald)
Fire investigator accuses Perry of 'unethical' behavior; governor defends
The nationally noted fire expert whose investigation of arson evidence
called into question a 2004 Texas execution blasted Gov. Rick Perry late
Wednesday, accusing the governor of "unethical" behavior in the case.
Baltimore-based Craig Beyler, hired by the Texas Forensic Science
Commission to examine the case, said in an e-mail that the governor should
not have upended the commission, which was to have heard his report just
days after Perry replaced several members. He said the governor had a
conflict of interest because he approved the execution of Cameron Todd
Willingham of Corsicana.
"His failure to recuse himself is both unethical and injurious to the
cause of justice," Beyler wrote in a note intended for the Forensic
Science Commission and forwarded to several reporters with his permission.
Beyler's report found that no credible evidence existed to show Willingham
intentionally set the blaze that killed his 3 children in a 1991 house
fire. When Perry moved to replace several commission members, including
the chairman, the hearing was postponed indefinitely. The new chairman has
not rescheduled it.
Beyler, who is technically a contractor to a state commission, called on
the new appointees to step down and seek the reinstatement of the people
they replaced. He could not be reached to elaborate.
Perry's press secretary, Allison Castle, said the comments call into
question Beyler's report and his motives.
"This statement demonstrates that he was never an objective scientist
looking only at forensic facts," Castle said. "He clearly had another
It was an unusual turn in the case, which has drawn national attention on
whether Texas might have executed an innocent man. It followed Perry's
forceful defense earlier Wednesday of Willingham's execution.
Calling Willingham "a monster," Perry said he harbors no doubt that
Willingham, an unemployed mechanic, purposefully set fire to his home.
"This was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his
wife into an abortion person after person has stood up and testified to
the facts of this case that, quite frankly, you guys aren't covering,"
Perry told reporters. "This was a bad man."
It was his most forceful reaction yet to the controversy that has engulfed
his office in recent weeks. Perry singled out Beyler as a latecomer to the
case, but he did not mention the half-dozen other analysts who have looked
at the Willingham case and come to the same conclusion.
Lawyers in his office also had met with the forensics chairman before his
removal and challenged whether the Willingham investigation was within the
small agency's jurisdiction.
Perry said his staff and actions are consistent with asking agencies what
they are working on and with replacing appointees when their terms expire.
He suggested that too much is being made of a routine process.
"This commission's time was up; it was time for a change," Perry said.
Of the Willingham case, he said that even if the arson evidence is
discredited, he is convinced by other factors that Willingham committed
He said Beyler's opinion stands in opposition to findings of the jury,
state appeals courts and even U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the
He pointed to the fact that even Willingham's defense attorney has said in
the end he thought his client was guilty.
Perry contended that the controversy is being stirred by "nothing more
than propaganda from the anti-death penalty people across this country."
Not so, said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which took
an early interest in the case. The organization's work already has led to
dozens of DNA exonerations in Texas.
"Governor Perry still refuses to face reality and scientific fact," Scheck
He said that Beyler is one of the foremost experts in the nation and that
his findings echo the other independent reviews.
"Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has
been disproven all of it," Scheck said. "Today he is raising
circumstantial evidence that even witnesses at Willingham's trial have now
Perry's chief political rival, Kay Bailey Hutchison, also criticized Perry
on Wednesday, accusing him of a "heavy-handed politicization of a
In a written statement, her campaign said Perry's action gives the
appearance of "a cover-up" and provides "liberals an argument to discredit
the death penalty."
(source: Dallas Morning News)