Appeals court upholds death sentence
A federal appeals court Monday refused to overturn the death sentence of convicted murderer Stevie Lamar Fields, rejecting claims that the jury foreman had tainted penalty deliberations by reciting Bible verses, including “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
Fields was convicted in the 1978 rape, robbery and murder of Rosemary Carr Cobb, a USC student librarian. At the time, he was on parole for a manslaughter conviction.
During penalty deliberations, foreman Rodney White researched and recited for his fellow jurors several biblical passages, among them, “He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.”
Writing for the 9-6 majority, U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer said that the verses, as well as White’s notes listing pros and cons of the death penalty -- including “deterrence” on the pro side and “human fallibility” on the con side -- were “notions of general currency that inform the moral judgment that capital-case jurors are called upon to make.”
Rymer said that it clearly was permissible for White to cite the verses from memory. Consequently, she said, “it is difficult to see how sharing notes can be constitutionally infirm if sharing memory isn’t.”
She said the court did not have to reach the issue of juror misconduct on the foreman’s actions. Even assuming White did something wrong, Rymer wrote, “we are persuaded that White’s notes had no substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”
Monday’s ruling reverses one rendered seven years ago by U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian. Although he upheld Fields’ conviction, Tevrizian set aside the death sentence, concluding that the jury’s consideration of biblical references went against the principle that religion may not play a role in the sentencing process.
The jury had been deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of sentencing Fields to life without possibility of parole. But after hearing the foreman, the panel voted unanimously to send Fields to the gas chamber.
Judge Ronald M. Gould of the 9th Circuit, who wrote one of the two dissents issued Monday, said Tevrizian’s decision should have been upheld. “It is well settled that religion may not play a role in the sentencing process,” he wrote. White’s notes to fellow jurors contained 13 biblical passages favoring the death penalty and just one opposing it, while failing to mention others “that might have been marshaled against the death penalty.”
Gould also said it was “fanciful” to say that the biblical quotations were merely “notions of general currency” given that the foreman had to do research to find them. “Would the majority say that the same is true if the foreperson brought in written quotations from other religious texts?” Gould asked.
“The last thing that this country needs, and a thing inconsistent with our constitutional traditions and the paramount role of the jury in our criminal justice system, is to have a theocratic jury room in which a jury foreman can present . . . notes compiled from the Bible with a selected ‘pro and con’ on the death penalty in light of scripture,” Gould added.
At his trial for Cobb’s murder, Fields also was convicted of robbing three other people and kidnapping and sexually assaulting two of them. He committed those crimes within weeks of his release on parole from a manslaughter conviction in September 1978.
Gould voted to uphold the guilty verdicts against Fields, saying the crimes were “horrific.” Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Kim M. Wardlaw joined his dissent on the death sentence while also voting to uphold the guilty verdict.
Judge Marsha Berzon wrote a separate dissent saying that Fields was “sentenced to death by a jury whose foreperson brought into the jury room, and placed before his colleagues for consideration, lengthy biblical quotations that clashed with the judge’s instructions, with California death penalty law, and with constitutional precepts governing sentencing in a death penalty case.”
Berzon, joined by Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Sidney R. Thomas, also maintained that the guilty verdict should have been overturned because another juror failed to disclose that his wife had been a rape victim. The vote on that issue was 12 to 3 to uphold the verdict.
The wife’s assailant was, like Fields, a black male. She believed that Fields may have been her rapist, according to testimony that emerged years after the trial.
The juror, Floyd Hilliard, disclosed during the jury selection process that his wife had been assaulted but did not specify the nature of the assault. The 9th Circuit majority said that during a hearing before Tevrizian, Hilliard, who also is black, said he did not intend to hide the fact that that his wife had been sexually assaulted, that he had acted in good faith as a juror and had not mentioned the crime against his wife to other jurors. Hilliard testified that it never crossed his mind that Fields was the person who assaulted his wife. Tevrizian found him credible.
Rymer, joined by 11 other judges, upheld Tevrizian on this issue, concluding that there was no showing that Hilliard was biased against Fields.
Monday’s decision brings Fields a step closer to execution, but he can still petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the 9th Circuit’s decision.
Executions in California, however, have been on hold since February 2006 because of a challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection procedures.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Kristofer Jorstad, who argued the case before the 15-judge panel, praised the ruling. “The court’s approach to both questions was comprehensive and practical,” he said.
Los Angeles attorney David S. Olson, who has represented Fields for more than a decade, said he was troubled by the decision and said the ruling about the penalty phase had ominous implications.
“This really undermines the jury system,” he said. “The jury is supposed to decide the case on the evidence, not on one juror’s research on biblical mandates in support of the death penalty.”
Olson said that although he had not spoken to Fields about what to do next, he “certainly would like” to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.