More than a quarter-century after the slaying of an Oceanside woman, a judge has overturned her killer’s death sentence, finding the prosecutor committed “egregious misconduct” by telling jurors that the Bible demanded the ultimate punishment.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller wrote that the repeated quotations and references to biblical law in the prosecutor’s closing statements were so inflammatory that they had affected the outcome of Rudolph Roybal’s 1992 trial.
“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.
The judge also chastised Roybal’s defense attorneys, ruling they had provided ineffective counsel by not objecting to the prosecutor’s closing remarks.
The ruling directs prosecutors to either grant Roybal, 59, a new penalty phase to determine whether he should be sentenced to death, or to resentence him to life without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors, who have about four months to decide how to proceed, also can appeal the judge’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Roybal was a 33-year-old drifter who had come from Santa Fe, N.M., to stay with his half-brother in Oceanside in 1989.
Testimony at the trial in Vista Superior Court was rife with details about his troubled childhood. His mother drank alcohol while pregnant, later neglected him and at one point offered to give him up to appease her then-husband, according to testimony. Roybal started drinking and sniffing paint at age 9 and suffered from various personality disorders.
By the time he made it to Oceanside, he had been convicted of six felonies, including a drug-fueled attack on a former girlfriend and a car chase that ended with his passenger firing shots at a pursuing police officer.
While staying with his brother, he made money by doing yard work. After performing about four days of gardening for Yvonne Weden, 65, and her husband, Roybal was fired for being too slow.
Weden was found dead in her bedroom about a week later. She’d been stabbed 13 times and her neck had been slashed.
A Camel cigarette butt, the brand Roybal was known to smoke, was found on the floor. Some of her jewelry was missing, including her wedding ring.
Roybal left for New Mexico the next day, and his mother saw him hide a plastic bag in a cinder block wall near her house. Police found that it contained some of the Wedens’ property, including jewelry.
A jury found Roybal guilty of first-degree murder, robbery and burglary in 1992. The penalty phase lasted nine days. When it came time for closing statements, San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. 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 … ‘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.’”
Roybal’s public defenders did not object.
Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project run by California Western School of Law, said the issue was less about the Bible than the prosecutor asking the jury to make a decision based on something other than the evidence presented in the case.
“It’s an appeal to an authority or other evidence that shouldn’t be considered by the jury,” Simpson said. “In reality, the only thing a jury should do is consider what are the facts and how do the facts inform my decision to vote one way or the other.”
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Union-Tribune staff writer Dana Littlefield contributed to this report.