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Justices deal with Ten Commandments display, Florida murder appeal

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 8:07 PM EDT, Mon October 3, 2011
The Supreme Court on Monday asked Florida to weigh in on an appeal from death row inmate Joseph Smith.
The Supreme Court on Monday asked Florida to weigh in on an appeal from death row inmate Joseph Smith.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An Ohio judge wanted to post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom
  • The court rejected the appeal; the ACLU and ACLJ were on opposite sides of the case
  • The justices ask Florida to respond to an appeal in a Florida capital case

Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday turned away an appeal from an Ohio judge who wanted to post a copy of the biblical Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

The case was among hundreds disposed of by the justices, who returned to start a new term after a three-month recess. Another separate, high-profile petition involved a death row prisoner challenging his conviction in the murder of an 11-year-old Florida girl.

The Ohio case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had successfully prevented Richland County Common Pleas Judge James DeWeese from posting another copy of the Ten Commandments.

He first hung the well-known passage from the Bible in 2000, alongside a copy of the Constitution's Bill of Rights, and referred to both as "the rule of law," according to court documents.

The Supreme Court five years ago agreed the display violated the Constitution's ban against "establishment" of religion, and ordered the poster removed.

But the judge soon tacked up another display, called "Philosophies of Law in Conflict," that included the Ten Commandments in a section called "Moral Absolutes." A separate section called "Moral Relativism" included sources such as the Humanist Manifesto.

It was that poster the justices Monday again rejected for public viewing in a government building.

DeWeese's attorney, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice had urged the justices to intervene.

"It's time for the high court to set the record straight: The display by Judge DeWeese is a constitutionally permissible method of explaining his legal and moral philosophy, the same philosophy embraced by our founders," he said.

The ACLU countered the poster was a clear expression of the judge's religious views, and a clear violation of the long-standing principle of separation of church and state.

In a separate appeal, the justices asked Florida to weigh in with a response from an appeal by death row inmate Joseph Smith. The former mechanic was convicted in the horrific murder of Carlie Jane Brucia of Sarasota, who was abducted from near a car wash in 2004.

Dramatic surveillance video from a nearby security camera showed the girl being confronted by a man later identified as Smith, who was on probation at the time. The man then grabbed Carlie and brought her to his car. That footage aired on television around the country, and was used by the FBI and local police to launch a desperate search.

Smith was later convicted and sentenced to death. The tragedy prompted congressional legislation, Carlie's Law, which tightens parole rules for sex offenders, while also creating an alert system to notify parents when criminal activity is taking place nearby.

The high court had rejected an earlier appeal from Smith in June, but the inmate filed another federal claim, saying his right to confront witnesses at trial was violated when prosecutors introduced DNA evidence implicating him. A panel of experts talking about the forensic work did not include the lab technician who actually performed the test. State courts have been at odds on whether such non-testimonial evidence is acceptable, particularly in capital cases.

The justices last week accepted review of a case from Illinois raising similar issues.

The Florida case is Smith v. Florida (09-10755).

The Ohio Ten Commandments case is DeWeese v. ACLU (10-1512).

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