Amanda C. Shoffel, NEJCC Scribes Award. Comment. The Theocratic Jury Room: Oliver v. Quarterman and the Burgeoning Circuit Split on Biblical References in Capital Sentencing. (Oliver v. Quarterman, 541 F. 3d 329, 2008; Commonwealth v. Chambers, 599 A. 2d 630, 1991), 36 New Eng. J. on Crim & Civ. Confinement 113-132 (2010).
Introduction: In 1991, Assistant District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert prosecuted twenty-eight-year-old Karl Chambers for robbing, beating, and killing seventy-year-old Anna May Morris. In his closing argument Rebert declared, "Karl Chambers has taken a life. . . . As the Bible says, 'and the murderer shall be put to death.'" Based on this statement, the defense appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Justice Nicholas P. Papadakos wrote for the majority, "[W]e are not convinced that the [death] penalty was not the product of passion, prejudice or an arbitrary factor." Chambers's death sentence was vacated.
As a result, in Commonwealth v. Chambers, Pennsylvania became the first and only state to adopt a per se reversible error rule applicable to all prosecutorial statements that rely on the Bible to support the imposition of the death penalty. In response, Rebert stated, "I don't know of any God-fearing prosecutor that has not used some scriptural or religious reference in arguing to a jury . . . God's law is the basis for Pennsylvania law and all law."
This controversial holding poses the question: What did the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recognize as intrinsically dangerous to a fair and impartial capital trial in allowing religion to influence the jury