In 1992, Rudolph Roybal was found guilty of first-degree murder, robbery and burglary. He had allegedly stabbed a woman (who had once employed him) 13 times, beaten her up, and slashed her neck before stealing her jewelry and heading to a different state. A jury found him guilty of the crime.
But when it came time to decide his penalty, the prosecutor urged the jury to consider something that had nothing to do with the evidence:
When it came time for closing statements, Deputy District Attorney James Koerber told jurors: “There is another book, written long ago, that mentions the crime of murder, and mentions what is the appropriate penalty for the crime of murder, and that book says a couple of different things.
“It says, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ It says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” Koerber continued. “It says ‘And if he smite with an instrument of iron so that he die, he is a murderer. The murderer shall surely be put to death.’ It says, moreover, ‘Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer which is guilty of death, but shall be surely put to death.’”
Shockingly, Roybal’s defense lawyers saw no need to object to this. He was soon given the death penalty for his crimes.
While a California appeals court said the Bible reference had no substantive effect on the jury’s decision, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller disagreed:
“The prosecutor’s improper argument presented an intolerable danger that the jury minimized its role as fact finder 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,” Miller wrote in a 226-page opinion granting Roybal’s appeal. The opinion was filed last week.
Prosecutors will now have to decide whether to appeal the decision or settle for putting him in prison for life (without parole).
I don’t support the death penalty to begin with, but using the Bible as justification for why it should be used speaks to the problems with both the punishment itself as well as the religion. We’re a nation that has overcome the Bible. We understand when it’s inhumane and worth discarding. (Well, some of us do.)
If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that a bad book was used to overturn a bad punishment. There’s no doubt that Roybal needs to be punished for his crime. And he will be. But his punishment will be based on what the law dictates, not what some ancient book filled with plenty of nonsense required.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Tom for the link)