S.C.: Juror’s Reading of Bible in Jury Room Was Not Prejudicial
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence of a Kern County man who raped and murdered a mother of two after burglarizing the family’s home in October 1994.
In upholding the death judgment of Bob Russell Williams Jr., the justices rejected among other contentions his claim that the reading of biblical passages during jury deliberations amounted to prejudicial misconduct.
Williams had proceeded directly to the penalty phase of his trial after pleading guilty in June 1996 to one count of murder—with the special circumstance of committing the killing in the course of a rape—five counts of burglary and one count of attempted escape.
Bible Passages Found
According to testimony, Williams first noticed the residence of his victim, Mary Breck, while taking a morning walk in the area. Although she was apparently home at the time, she did not hear when he broke into the home through an unlocked front door and stole a wallet out of a purse lying on the kitchen counter. Williams emptied the wallet and threw it away in a park trash can, keeping the credit cards.
The next day, after committing several other burglaries, Williams returned to the Breck house with the credit cards he had stolen and, knocking on the door, gave the cards to her when she answered. She gave him $5 for the items and told him she would also like to see her driver’s license returned.
Williams retrieved the license from the trash and returned to the Breck home. When she answered the door, he pushed her down and stripped, raped and sodomized her, before blindfolding and strangling her to death. After the murder, he scanned the residence for items to steal, ultimately taking a portable television, camcorder and the keys to a Lexus parked in the garage.
He then drove the Lexus to Kern River canyon, where he fished for several hours using fishing poles he stole from the Brecks’ garage. The California Highway Patrol ultimately arrested him following a high-speed chase.
After the jury returned a death verdict, Kern Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall sentenced Williams to death and denied his motion for a new trial on the ground of juror misconduct. The motion, supported by declarations from two jurors, was filed when it came to light that several pages copied from a Bible were found in a juror’s notebook—court staff discovered the papers while cleaning out the jury room after the verdict was rendered.
The hearing on the motion included testimony by several jurors that a male juror, identified as “T.F.,” read portions of the Bible aloud during deliberations in order to “comfort” another juror, identified as “K.Y.,” who was very emotional about making a decision in favor of death.
After an initial poll in which she was one of three voting against the death penalty, K.Y. said something to the effect that “doesn’t the Bible say you are not supposed to judge,” T.F. testified.
In response, he said, he copied several verses out of the Bible during lunch and when deliberations resumed, read them out loud and then handed them to another juror whom he believed could have been K.Y. The passages included verses admonishing every soul to be “subject unto the higher powers,” and declaring, “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?”
The next day, the jury returned a death verdict.
Though K.Y. confirmed the verses were read, she said she did not refer to the Bible or religion in explaining her reason for voting in favor of the death penalty.
Another juror, identified as “H.B.,” submitted a declaration stating that immediately after the Bible reading, he told the jurors that religion should play no part in the decision and that the jurors must consider man’s law and not God’s law in deciding the case. A declaration by a juror identified as “C.R” confirmed H.B.’s statement and said religion was not discussed after the biblical passages were read.
Randall found as a matter of fact that no discussions took place about the verses after they were read by T.F. He concluded there was no substantial likelihood that the passages influenced jurors because a layperson would not read their content as meaning that their penalty decision should be made according to religious law rather than secular law.
The high court agreed.
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, writing for the court, said reading from the Bible and circulating biblical passages during deliberations was clear misconduct but nonetheless did not prejudice Williams.
The verses read “did not propound an alternative set of rules or standards about when the death penalty should be imposed, but merely counseled deference to governmental authority and affirmed the validity of sitting in judgment of one’s fellow human beings according to the law,” Moreno said, adding:
“Although we do not hold that the reading of such verses can never be prejudicial, we believe that in the present context jurors would understand the verses as a response to a particular juror’s doubts about whether the Bible authorized her to sit in judgment, not as a means of advancing a religiously based argument in favor of the death penalty for defendant.”
The case is People v. Williams, 06 S.O.S. 6361.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company