Posted on 5/8/17

American law is replete with various protections for the criminally accused, most notably the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, wherein the prosecution is tasked with swaying the judge and jury that a defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant creates any doubt, even if the facts and circumstances suggest that the defendant most likely committed the crime, the criminal justice system requires the judge and jury to find the defendant not guilty.

American law also protects the rights of its citizens through the Establishment clause. The Establishment clause of the United States Constitution prohibits the U.S. government from adopting a religion or favoring one religion over another or favoring religion over non-religion. It is based on the plight of the Puritans, who came to America to avoid religious persecution in England. Americans cherish theEstablishment Clause, which allows American Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims etc. to worship as they please.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals presided over the 2005 case of Holberg v. State, which saw how criminal law and the Establishment Clause intersect.

Holberg v. State

In 1996, Brittany Holberg was a then 23-year-old prostitute who approached 80-year-old A.B.Towrey, Sr. in Amarillo and requested to use his telephone. Holberg had worked as a topless dancer for Towrey. Towrey offered Holberg to go to his apartment and use his phone there. Once at the apartment, Holberg demanded money from the victim, who refused. That led to a struggle. Holberg took household items, including a paring knife and grapefruit cutter and used them to beat and stab the victim, causing him to hit the floor. She stabbed him over 60 times. She then took a lamp pole and shoved it down his throat, strangling him. Once dead, she took the contents of his wallet, totaling $1400.

The prosecution charged Holberg with murder. She was found guilty of murder with an attempt to commit burglary and robbery. She was sentenced to death.

Holberg appealed the conviction, in part claiming that placing her on death row violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Specifically, Holberg cited Texas legislation that created the death penalty for a religious purpose. Holberg, in her defense brief, alleged that the death penalty was created as part of a Protestant Christian belief system and therefore in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The Court rejected this argument. Based on the U.S. Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman, there is a violation of the Establishment Clause if the purpose is to promote or inhibit religion. The Court was not swayed that the purpose of the death penalty was to promote religion. It may be, the court reasoned, that the legislature felt that the death penalty was the only suitable punishment for the crime. Moreover, the court cannot assume that a few statements of some legislators is the reason behind the punishment.

Brittany Holberg is currently sitting on death row in Texas.

If you have been accused of a crime, contact a lawyer who will fight on your behalf. Contact the law firm of Christopher Abel.

(image courtesy of John Mark Kuznietsov)

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