Bible's presence in jury room may spell another sentencing trial

Kristi Fulgham

Kristi Fulgham

Similar case?

People v. Harlan – A Colorado case in which during the death penalty phase, one juror shared a biblical passage that advocated death for murder. The court ruled this was inappropriate and sentenced Harlan to life in prison without possibility of parole. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the lower court's sentence.

By Leesha Faulkner
Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – An appeal is certain in Kristi Fulgham's future. In Mississippi, anyone sentenced to death automatically begins a long appeal process.

However, Fulgham's appeal may have some other implications centering on a Bible left in the jury room while the 12 deliberated on whether to sentence her to life in prison or death for capital murder.

Fulgham was convicted last week of murdering her husband Joseph “Joey” Fulgham in May 2003 at their Longview community residence. During the sentencing phase of the trial, it was discovered that a bailiff left his Bible in the jury room. When he returned for it, one of the jurors asked if they could keep it. About 15 minutes later, the jurors returned with a death sentence.

Jackson attorney James Lappan, who represents Kristi Fulgham, immediately requested a mistrial. Circuit Judge Lee Howard denied Lappan's request after asking the jury if the presence of the Bible affected their decision. All the jurors said it hadn't.

A couple of legal experts say such an issue is a matter of degree. To what extent did the Bible do anything? Did it have an effect on the jury's verdict?

Legal opinions

John Berkoff is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He has written extensively on criminal law and is a nationally recognized expert on legal ethics. Berkoff said he's never heard of such a case. What the bailiff did was wrong, but beyond that, the issue seems to be focused on the damage done to the jury during its death sentence deliberation.

Marc Harrold, chief counsel and visiting professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law's National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law and co-author of Mississippi Criminal Law Practice, agrees with Berkoff and takes the argument a bit farther.

It's reasonable to believe a Bible would influence juries, he noted. The type of influence would depend on which Bible is brought in. For example, jurors examining scripture in the New Testament might draw a different conclusion than those who took instruction from the Old Testament, he explained.

Harrold pointed to a similar case in Colorado in which the state judge threw out the death penalty and the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the judge's action.

Obviously, said Harrold, Judge Howard recognized the potential for some damage or he wouldn't have asked jurors if they would continue to consider only the law and the evidence during the case's sentencing phase.

And, that's another question, Harrold explained, “How deep does the remedy need to reach?”

Both legal experts also say the appeal could touch the federal courts, either the U.S. District Court or the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. At that point, Fulgham's attorney could argue his client didn't receive a fair and impartial trial in the sentencing phase because of the Bible's presence in the jury deliberation room.

Said Berkoff, “It's interesting to see all the problems this bailiff caused by doing such a silly thing as leaving a Bible with the jury.”

Contact Daily Journal county-courts reporter Leesha Faulkner at 678-1590 or leesha.faulkner@djournal.com