July 22, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: State’s Interest in Ascertaining Truth Paramount Over Witness’s Religious Freedom Claims

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Ray on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Death PenaltyPostconviction—Freedom of Religion—First Amendment—Refusal to Testify—Direct Contempt—Rational BasisStrict Scrutiny.

Ray was sentenced to death in a first degree murder case. Ray’s attorneys hired Lindecrantz as an investigator to assist them in the penalty phase of the case.

The trial court began the required postconviction review of Ray’s conviction and sentence. Ray sought postconviction relief, in part alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Part of that claim challenges Lindecrantz’s investigation. The prosecution subpoenaed Lindecrantz to testify. She moved to quash, arguing that as a devout Mennonite she is opposed to the death penalty on religious grounds and she feared that in truthfully answering the prosecutor’s questions, she would provide information from which the prosecutor could argue that Ray received effective assistance, which could lead to upholding the conviction and death sentence.

The trial court denied the motion to quash, finding that under either a rational basis or strict scrutiny analysis, Lindecrantz’s sincerely held religious beliefs did not justify her refusal to answer questions under oath in response to the subpoena. She took the stand and refused to testify. The court ultimately found her in direct contempt and remanded her to the sheriff’s custody “until she elects to answer the questions” as a remedial sanction. She has been in jail since February 26 of this year.

On appeal, Lindecrantz argued that being called as a witness for the prosecution makes her a “tool” or “weapon” of the prosecutor’s efforts to execute Ray. She would answer the trial court’s questions on direct examination and the prosecutor’s and defense counsel’s questions on cross-examination, but does not want to answer the prosecutor’s questions on direct examination. The court of appeals weighed the substantial burden on Lindecrantz’s religious beliefs against the state’s compelling interests in ascertaining the truth and rendering a just judgment in accordance with the law and concluded that Lindecrantz’s position fails under both a rational basis and strict scrutiny analysis. Lastly, holding Lindecrantz in contempt is narrowly tailored to advance the government’s compelling interests.

The order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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