Tuesday, Macrh 8, 2005
S.C.: Prosecutor’s Biblical Argument Not Prejudicial in Death Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Stanislaus County man sentenced to die for his role in a bloody quadruple murder was not deprived of a fair trial by biblical references in the prosecutor’s closing argument, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The argument by Deputy District Attorney James Brazelton—-noting approving references to capital punishment in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament—was improper, justices agreed. But in a 6-1 decision, the court held that comments were so fleeting they could not have made the difference between a death sentence and one of life imprisonment for Richard John Vieira.
Brazelton is now the county’s district attorney and is best known for having headed up the prosecution of Scott Peterson, sentenced to death last year for the murder of his wife.
The prosecution argued that Vieira, 21 years old at the time of the 1990 murders, was part of a cult-like group headed by a neighbor, Gerald Cruz. They said that Cruz, Vieira, and three other men brutally beat and stabbed the victims in a post-midnight raid on a house in the town of Salida, then slashed their throats.
The slayings were said to spring from a long-running feud between Cruz and one of the victims, Franklin Raper, with Cruz finally plotting to “take him out.” Cruz and James David Beck were tried separately and sentenced to death—their appeals are pending—while two other men drew life terms.
Vieira’s court-appointed attorney argued on appeal that Brazelton made an impermissible appeal to religious passions in the penalty phase when he argued:
“People from time to time have a problem because they say, ‘Gee, in the Bible it says ‘Thou shall not kill,’ and ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord. I will repay.’ That’s found in Romans. But in the very next passage..., it goes on and calls for capital punishment and says, ‘[t]he ruler bears not the sword in vain for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.’ He’s talking about the ruler, the government, whatever.
“Now, the Judeo-Christian ethic comes from the Old Testament—I believe the first five books—called the Torah in the Jewish religion. And there are two very important concepts that are found there. And that’s, one, capital punishment for murder is necessary in order to preserve the sanctity of human life, and, two, only the severest penalty of death can underscore the severity of taking life.”
Brazelton went on to quote from Exodus, chapter 21:
“Whoever strikes another man and kills him shall be put to death. But if he did not act with intent but they met by act of God, the slayer may flee to a place which I will appoint for you.”
The meaning, the prosecutor said, is that the death penalty is appropriate for one who kills intentionally.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing yesterday for the high court, said that while the argument should not have been made, it was not prejudicial because it was “only a small part of a prosecutorial argument that primarily focused on explaining to the jury why it should conclude that the statutory aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors.”
Justice Joyce L. Kennard dissented. Absent the improper comment, she argued, jurors might have been convinced that Vieira was acting “under the substantial domination of” Cruz and given him a life sentence without possibility of parole.
The case is People v. Vieira, 05 S.O.S. 1229.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company