Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Federal Court In Habeas Action Finds California Prosecutor's Use of Biblical References Prejudicial

In Roybal v. Davis, (SD CA, Dec. 2, 2015), a California federal district court granted penalty phase habeas corpus relief in a petition brought by a defendant who had been sentenced to death by a California state jury in the robbery and stabbing murder of a 65-year old woman.  The district court found that the California Supreme Court was "objectively unreasonable" in concluding that improper argument by the prosecutor during the penalty phase of the murder trial was harmless error and not prejudicial to the defendant. (People v. Roybal,  (1998)). At issue were Biblical references made by the prosecutor.  The district court, in a very lengthy opinion dealing with numerous other objections as well, said in part:
It is without question that the prosecutor improperly urged the jurors to impose a death sentence on Petitioner based on biblical law.... [T]he prosecutor did not stop with simply drawing parallels between state law and biblical law which, in itself, would have been misconduct. He went on to quote directly from the Bible, asserting that biblical text demanded a specific punishment for murder.... Such argument could only have been meant to urge the jurors to find justification for a death sentence in biblical text, authority well outside the penal code, and to subvert or frustrate their consideration of the proper sentencing factors under state law....
Here, the prosecutor's unambiguous, repeated, and carefully timed improper exhortations to the jury to apply biblical law diminished the jurors' sense of personal decision-making for the imposition of the death penalty. In so many words, the jury was informed that the Bible requires a murderer who kills with iron (i.e. knife) to himself be put to death. The prosecutor's improper argument presented an intolerable danger that the jury minimized its role as factfinder and encouraged jurors to vote for death because it was God's will, and not that the imposition of the death penalty complied with California and federal law.....
As discussed above, the California Supreme Court correctly found that the prosecutor's religious argument was misconduct and fell outside the bounds of both state and federal law, but unreasonably found that the comments were not prejudicial.
San Diego Union Tribune reports on the decision.