Death sentence overturned because of prosecutor’s biblical references

Wednesday, November 8, 2000

A California state prisoner convicted on several murder counts has had
his death sentence reversed by a federal appeals court. The appellate judges
found that the prosecutor had improperly argued to the jury that the death
penalty was sanctioned by God.

Alfred Arthur Sandoval was convicted on four counts of murder and one
count of attempted murder for the deaths of four individuals, three of whom
were rival gang members, in October 1984. A jury imposed the death penalty for
one of the murders.

Sandoval appealed his convictions and death sentence to no avail
throughout the state-court system. After the California Supreme Court affirmed
the convictions and his death sentence in 1992, Sandoval challenged the
constitutionality of his convictions and his death sentence in federal court in
July 1996.

Sandoval challenged the death sentence, citing the prosecutor’s
repeated biblical references in his closing argument during the penalty phase
of the trial.

In Sandoval’s case, the prosecutor told the jury in closing

<p><blockquote>&quot;Let every person be in subjection to
the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God and those
which are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed
the ordinance of God, and they who have opposed will receive condemnations upon
themselves for rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.
Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have
praise for the same for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do
what is evil, be afraid for it does not bear the sword for nothing for it is a
minister of God an avenger who brings wrath upon one who practices evil.</p>
<p>&quot;You are not playing God. You are doing what God says. This might be
the only opportunity to wake him up. God will destroy the body to save the
soul. Make him get himself right.&quot;</blockquote></p>

After a federal district court upheld his convictions and death
sentence, Sandoval appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Nov. 6, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed Sandoval’s
death penalty in Sandoval v.
. The 9th Circuit determined that the prosecutor’s
comments were “both improper and highly prejudicial.”

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment also requires us to
be especially vigilant in guarding against religious argument,” the panel
wrote. “When the State invokes Biblical teachings to persuade a jury, there is,
at the very least, the appearance of state endorsement of those teachings.”

The 9th Circuit noted that many other federal and state courts had
“condemned” religious arguments by state officials in similar cases.

“There could be no clearer an invocation of divine authority to direct
a jury’s verdict,” the panel wrote.

The state had argued that the death sentence should stand because any
biblical references made by the prosecutor were harmless error. However, the
panel wrote: “We do not know what actually happened in the jury room, but we
cannot assume that the prosecutor’s religious argument did not persuade at
least one of the jurors to change a vote for life to death.”

The 9th Circuit remanded the case back to the district court to order
that Sandoval receive a “penalty phase retrialif the state
elects to seek such a trial.”

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