More than 500 religious leaders nationwide—including a Texas Baptist seminary professor—have endorsed a petition seeking a new trial for Texas death row inmate Christopher Young because a prospective juror was excluded on the basis of her church membership.
In 2006, Young was sentenced to death for the November 2004 fatal shooting of Hasmukh Patel during a robbery at a San Antonio convenience store. Young’s attorneys are challenging the conviction and seeking a new trial based on what they consider a violation of his rights under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment and “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During jury selection, Myrtlene Williams, an African-American member of the jury panel, was struck from service based on her religious affiliation and association with the outreach ministries program at Calvary Baptist Church in San Antonio. Although other members of the program ministered to prisoners, the prospective juror was not involved in that aspect of ministry. Last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Young’s claim.
On Nov. 29, 2016, Young’s attorneys filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices are scheduled to confer on the case March 3.
“Unfortunately, the state court issued a ruling saying it is acceptable to exclude someone from serving as a juror in a death penalty trial merely because of the church that person belongs to,” said David R. Dow, Young’s attorney.
“We hope the Supreme Court will agree to review the case and reaffirm that our Constitution and our nation’s commitment to religious liberty means that an individual’s membership in a church does not automatically disqualify that person from acting as a juror.”
Call for a new trial
Texas Baptists who signed the statement seeking a new trial for Young include Roger Olson, the Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, and Jerry Dailey, pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in San Antonio.
Other signatories include David Gushee, ethics professor and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University; Frederick Douglass Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas; Shane Claiborne, leader of Red Letter Christians and The Simple Way; Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Florida; author and columnist Jonathan Merritt of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and author Brian McLaren of Ocala, Fla.
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Some religious leaders endorsed the statement due to a general objection to capital punishment or the manner in which it is carried out in the United States.
“I will sign any petition to save someone from the death penalty, as I do not think the death penalty is ever either just or Christian,” Olson said.
Others signed the statement out of concern regarding religious discrimination.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to strike a juror based on her affiliation with her church,” Hunter said.
Concerns about religious discrimination
The petition state membership in a church or involvement with a specific ministry “is not a fair basis for preventing someone from carrying out her civic duty as a juror” and violates the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause.
The petition makes no statement about Young’s guilt or innocence, but it asserts his sentencing was “tainted by the decision of the government to strike a juror, not because of her personal beliefs, but solely because she was affiliated with a ministry that works to improve the lives of the poor, the elderly and the incarcerated.”
“Indeed, the government struck this juror even though she did not personally work with prisoners; she was removed, in short, because of her mere association with a church that pursued its mission of aiding the weak,” the petition continues. “We call on the state of Texas to disavow this discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation, and to give Mr. Young a new trial untainted by discrimination against jurors of faith.”