Supreme Court Upholds Stokes Death Sentence

9:59 PM, Mar 28, 2003   |    comments
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A Greensboro man's death sentence for the 1999 murder of Kim Dalton Sisk will stand despite prosecutor arguments that invoked Biblical references, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Jim Edward Haselden was sentenced to die by a Stokes County jury in 2001. He was convicted in the 1999 abduction and murder of neighbor Kim Dalton Sisk.

Haselden was arrested in DeKalb County, Ga., after Sisk's body was found in a Stokes County forest. Just days before Christmas, she had agreed to drive him to a relative's home in Virginia for $100. Her car was later found on a mountain logging road in Burke County.

Although the state's high court upheld Haselden's death sentence, the justices were divided on the issue of how Biblical references can be used by prosecutors in closing arguments.

Friday's 5-2 decision contains three separate opinions. The majority opinion concludes that overt references to Biblical verses are improper but didn't sway the jury in Haselden's case. A separate concurring opinion held that Biblical references in closing arguments are permitted, and a dissenting opinion, by Justices Bob Edmunds and Bob Orr, said religious arguments tainted the jury's sentence.

During Haselden's sentencing hearing, assistant district attorneys Jimmy Yeatts and Tim Watson cited five separate Biblical references that implied Christian doctrine sanctioned the death penalty.

Among the verses cited: "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. If he smite him with throwing a stone wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: And the murderer shall surely be put to death."

Writing for the majority, Justice George Wainwright said the court had ruled several times in the past that similar arguments were not "reversible error."

"The prosecutor here was addressing a potential defense argument that the death penalty is contrary to Christian doctrine," Wainwright wrote.

He also noted that the prosecutor did not suggest that the Bible mandates a death sentence.

But in the dissenting opinion, Edmunds said that jurors could infer that from the sentencing arguments.

Edmunds said the arguments used had the potential to result in a sentence "based upon religious sentiment rather than the capital sentencing procedure mandated by the laws of this state."

"Our expectation that arguments based upon religion would be kept within reasonable bounds has not been realized," he also wrote. "Either this Court should state that such arguments are proper, or it should enforce its admonitions. Our failure to act consistently may well undermine the validity and enforcement of North Carolina's capital punishment system."

In the concurring opinion, Justice Ed Brady wrote that applying secular law does not prevent prosecutors from making biblical references. Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. joined the opinion.

Not allowing religious references, Brady wrote, would be ignoring history and fact.

"These jurors, many of whom are cloaked in deeply held Judeo-Christian beliefs, do not automatically leave their religious beliefs on the courthouse steps," he wrote.

Haselden's lawyer, Jim Parish, and Stokes County District Attorney Ricky Bowman were both out of town and unavailable for comment Friday.

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