Carruthers v. State, S99P1418.

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Writing for the CourtFLETCHER, Presiding Justice.
Citation528 S.E.2d 217,272 Ga. 306
Docket NumberNo. S99P1418.,S99P1418.
Decision Date06 March 2000


John A. Beall, Peachtree City, William S. Callahan, Atlanta, for appellant.

Robert E. Keller, District Attorney, D. Brandon Hornsby, Assistant District Attorney, Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General, Susan V. Boleyn, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Allison B. Goldberg, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee. FLETCHER, Presiding Justice.

Anthony Carruthers was convicted of the malice murder of Jannette Williams and sentenced to death.1 Carruthers contends that the assistant district attorney made several improper arguments that warrant reversal of the death sentence. Finding no reversible error in the guilt/innocence phase of Carruthers' trial, we affirm the jury's verdict of guilt on all charges. However, because we conclude that the trial court erred in allowing the state to urge the jury to follow the religious mandates of the Bible rather than Georgia law, we reverse the sentence of death and remand the case for another jury to consider the proper sentence for the murder.

1. The evidence at trial showed that on December 12, 1995, Williams picked up Carruthers and Billy Edward Easter, Jr., at Carruthers' residence, drove the men to her residence, and invited them in. After some friendly conversation, she sat on Carruthers' lap. When Carruthers whispered something in her ear, Williams responded that she had a boyfriend. Carruthers then grabbed her arm. Easter went upstairs to use the bathroom. When he heard the sound of breaking glass, he returned downstairs and saw Carruthers choking Williams. She fell to the floor unconscious or semi-conscious. Carruthers cut her throat with one knife and then threw it across the room, commenting that it was dull. As Williams showed signs of life, Carruthers obtained a larger knife from the kitchen and cut her neck in a repetitive motion, cutting most of the way through her neck. He then rolled her over and stabbed her eleven times in the chest.

Shortly after the murder, Carruthers' girlfriend observed Williams' automobile parked outside Carruthers' residence, his bloody clothes in his washing machine, and scratches on his neck. Carruthers and Easter drove to Florida in Williams' car where Carruthers sold it for illegal drugs, and, upon discovering that the drugs were fake, chased and possibly shot at a man involved in the transaction. After returning to Georgia, Carruthers confessed to his girlfriend that he had killed a woman who owed him money. On December 20, 1995, Williams' automobile was discovered in Florida. Blood with DNA consistent with Williams' blood was recovered from the automobile.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, we find that the evidence adduced at trial was sufficient to authorize the jury's finding Carruthers guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted.2

Closing Arguments in Sentencing Phase

2. The United States Constitution and the Georgia Constitution guarantee criminal defendants the right to due process at trial. In addition, OCGA § 17-10-35 requires this Court to review the death sentence to determine whether it "was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor."

Carruthers filed a motion in limine to exclude during closing argument any Bible passages that appealed to the passion of the jury and would encourage it to impose a death sentence based on religion. During a pre-argument hearing, the prosecutor said that he intended to cite passages from the books of Romans, Genesis, and Matthew. The defendant objected to the biblical references, but the trial court overruled the objection and allowed the three passages.

During closing argument, the state urged the jury to impose a death sentence because the Bible states that society must deter criminals by taking the life of persons who kill other people. The state argued as follows:

Now, ladies and gentlemen, let me talk to you a moment about some biblical references that help us in this case. Deterrence is very important and the Bible suggests to us why deterrence is appropriate. Romans tells us that every person is subject to the governing authority, every person is subject. And in Matthew it tells us, who sheddeth man's blood by man shall his blood be shed for in the image of God made [he] man.3 For all they who take the sword shall die by the sword, and this is a message that is very clear, that society must deter criminals.

This Court has noted its concern about the use of biblical authority during closing arguments in death penalty trials. In Hill v. State,4 we stated that "it would be improper to urge a death penalty based upon the defendant's religious beliefs, or to urge that the teachings of a particular religion command the imposition of a death penalty in the case at hand."5 The problem is that biblical references inject the often irrelevant and inflammatory issue of religion into the sentencing process and improperly appeal to the religious beliefs of jurors in their decision on whether a person should live or die. Moreover, many passages in the Bible, Talmud, and other religious texts prescribe or command a sentence of death for killing. By quoting these texts during closing arguments, prosecutors may "diminish the jury's sense of responsibility and imply that another, higher law should be applied in capital cases, displacing the law in the court's instructions."6 As a result, at least one state supreme court has adopted a rule prohibiting prosecutors from relying on any religious writing to support the death penalty during closing argument.7

Although we have long declined to disapprove of passing, oratorical references to religious texts in arguments by counsel,8 we have distinguished those fleeting references from more direct references that urge that the teachings of a particular religion command the imposition of a death penalty.9 In contrast to biblical law, Georgia law gives the jury the discretion to recommend life imprisonment or death, provides stringent procedures and safeguards that must be followed during the trial, and permits the jury to impose the death penalty only in limited circumstances.10

In addition, we have specifically disapproved of a prosecutor quoting verses from the Bible to support the death penalty. In Hammond v. State,11 we concluded that it was improper for the assistant district attorney to argue that the defendant had violated the law of God that "[w]hoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed." Despite this disapproval and repeated admonitions,12 prosecutors have continued to quote the Bible and urge its teachings, and trial courts have continued to permit the arguments.13

Unlike previous cases, however, where the defendants failed to object to the state's religious arguments at trial,14 the defense in this case anticipated the argument and tried to prevent it by filing a motion in limine, but the trial court denied the motion. Because the defendant received an adverse ruling on his objection,15 the standard of review in this case is not whether the improper argument in reasonable probability changed the result of the trial, but simply whether the argument was objectionable and prejudicial.16

It is difficult to draw a precise line between religious arguments that are acceptable and those that are objectionable,17 but we conclude that the assistant district attorney in this case overstepped the line in directly quoting religious authority as mandating a death sentence. In citing specific passages, he invoked a higher moral authority and diverted the jury from the discretion provided to them under state law. One passage cited explicitly states that whoever sheds another person's blood shall have his own blood shed by man; another states that those "who take the sword shall die by the sword." The prosecutor was equally emphatic on the conclusion to be drawn from these passages: "this is a message that is very clear, that society must deter criminals." Language of command and obligation from a source other than Georgia law should not be presented to a jury. 18

Therefore, we find that Carruthers' right to due process as secured by OCGA § 17-10-35, the Georgia Constitution, and the Constitution of the United States was abridged when the trial court allowed the inappropriate arguments from the Bible over objection. Because we cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the violation of Carruthers' state and federal constitutional rights was harmless, we reverse the jury's death sentence and remand the case for resentencing.

3. Carruthers challenges several other aspects of the state's closing argument as objectionable.

(a) We have often stated that a prosecutor may not express his or her personal opinion in closing argument.19 To the extent that the assistant district attorney was stating his opinion regarding the fairness of Georgia's law governing victim impact testimony, we agree with Carruthers' contention that the comment was inappropriate.

(b) Because the issues could arise again at a retrial, we note with disfavor two other aspects of the state's argument during the sentencing phase. First, the state should not have argued that "only there [on death row] will [Carruthers] have the security that is appropriate for a man with his mentality." No evidence was before the jury regarding the relative security measures in various segments of Georgia's prison system, nor do we believe such evidence would have been appropriate. Second, the state misstated Georgia law regarding statutory aggravating circumstances. Only one statutory aggravating circumstance exists if a jury finds that a murder "involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery"20 or some combination of those three.21 We disapprove of Division 22 in Ledford v. State22 to the extent that...

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