Vengeance is Mine, Saith the Lord — but what does the Supreme Court say?

  • You took God’s money. You took the Lord’s money and those of us that believe that there is an Almighty and that there is a being that created this world to go in and then steal money that is being tendered by people for the furtherance of an earthly kingdom is just outrageous. … There is scripture that says “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord” but every now and then I think the judicial system has to contribute what it can. -Judge James Baker, sentencing three men to between 53 to 71 years in prison for an armed robbery of a church during a Sunday service

The three men appealed the sentence on the grounds that Baker referred to his person religious beliefs, and were turned down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court announced this week that it will not hear their appeal, letting stand the appeals court’s decision.

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30 Responses to Vengeance is Mine, Saith the Lord — but what does the Supreme Court say?

  1. Kilby Kilby says:

    Pecunia non olet. There is absolutely no reason why it is more reprehensible to rob a church patron at gunpoint than it would be to take the same amount of money from someone sitting in an outhouse.

    The issue here is not whether the criminals should go free, but whether the judge’s impartiality in applying punishment has been influenced by his personal opinion about the relative value of money, depending on the source.

    I would (and did) not vote to automatically overturn the sentences, but it would not hurt to review them to see if they were in line with terms awarded for comparable crimes.

    • Powers Powers says:

      That’s not how it works; even if the sentences are in-line, you overturn them and re-sentence with a different judge. That’s the only fair way.

      • James Pollock James Pollock says:

        Not so fast… first you determine if the judge committed an abuse of discretion, and if so, THEN you remand for further proceedings, and even that’s dependent on convincing four justices to even take a look at the case.

  2. furrykef furrykef says:

    Gah, how do we wind up with stupid judges like this?

  3. fj fj says:

    Some interesting points on this case:
    1) All three defendants pled guilty to 11 counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
    2) The weapons in question were guns. The defendants discharged a gun, and threatened to come back and kill the parishoners if they called the police. The robbery involved the use of force. I think that fits the definition of aggravated robbery.
    3) I believe the sentences represent EXACTLY the recommended range for aggravated armed robbery (with no prior convictions).
    4) The judge gave a suspended sentence for the conspiracy charge to which the defendants had also entered a guilty plea.

    The judge decided to make the 11 sentences consecutive rather than concurrent, effectively making these life sentences. Yes, that seems harsh, given that these young men had no prior convictions (while on the other hand, making then concurrent seems to me rather leniant.). Clearly, by law, the court had that right. The judge did suspend one additional charge: so he could have made the sentence worse.

    The actual appeal does not argue that the sentences were unfair or out of line: it argues that the judge’s references to religion were improper, and violated the defendants rights to due process. Here is what the 4th District Court had to say in dismising the appeal:
    “Petitioners appeal from the district court’s denial of habeas corpus relief. They contend that, at their sentencing for armed robbery of the Sunday worship services at a North Carolina church, the state trial judge impermissibly made references to religion, thereby violating their rights to due process. But the defendants’ choice to target a church during weekly services imbued their crime with an undeniably religious character. Crimes of this nature carry special hazards for the freedom of all faiths to worship undisturbed. Far from being “an unreasonable application of[ ] clearly established Federal law,” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), the trial judge’s comments reflected the distinctive harms to the community of the particular crime that the defendants chose to commit. We therefore affirm the denial of the petition.”

    My question would be, what was the defense lawyers’ strategy in pleading guilty to 11 counts of armed robbery, plus a conspiracy charge without any guarantees around sentencing?

    • James Pollock James Pollock says:

      It could have been the robbers’ strategy… plea decisions are theirs, not the lawyers’. Perhaps they spontaneously developed consciences.

      More likely, they negotiated away some other charges… 11 people seems small for the congregation

      • fj fj says:

        I would think the 11 counts are for the ushers and ministry team who were handling the collected offering, not the individuals in the congregation. Since they had already freely given their money, they were witnesses, not robbery victims.

        If NC juries can make sentencing recommendations, I wounder if the counsel thought they had a better chance with a judge than a jury…

  4. Daniel J. Drazen Daniel J. Drazen says:

    The judge was being a nincompoop, but that doesn’t constitute a reversible error.

  5. fj fj says:

    Oh, and just to be clear on the point, the defendants, as I understand it, were not sentenced to 5-7 years: they were sentenced to roughly 55-77 years.

    • Boise Ed Boise Ed says:

      If it was really 55-77, then I’d like to change my vote. That’s a bit extreme for robbery.

    • Mark M Mark M says:

      That does seem awfully harsh. Maybe someone with a better knowledge of the law can enlighten me as to what constitutes a “count”. Does that just mean there were 11 known victims in the church? If that’s the case, there is something wrong with the legal system when they are getting basically the same sentence as Charles Manson.

      • James Pollock James Pollock says:

        Multiple “counts” means that they completed all the required elements of the crime that many separate times. Punching someone several times during a fistfight doesn’t create multiple assaults, for example, but swinging at and connecting with a second person does; you can be charged with assault on person A AND assault on person B, for 2 counts of assault.

        In this case, they committed 11 separate acts of robbery, by taking valuable property from 11 separate people by threat of imminent violence.

        It might seem harsh, but A) you can avoid this by not robbing churches full of people, and B) states with life sentences for “habitual criminals” (AKA three strikes) have put people in prison for life on some pretty minor (but valid) third convictions.

      • fj fj says:

        If Charles Manson had committed murder in North Carolina, he would have been executed over four decades ago…

  6. fj fj says:

    Actually, it comes out 53-71 years (the actual guidelines are in months). And yes, it seems extreme. But as I see it, this was not just the judge’s decision. A district attorney had to decide to charge these men with 11 separate, different counts of armed robbery (as opposed to just one with 11 victims). A grand jury had to approve these charges (and they did, along with two other crimes). And the defendants should have known that consecutive sentences were a possibility (and their lawyers positively had to be aware of this), and that NC does not allow parole. However, the defense entered pleas of guilty for all charges.

    If the judge decided to allow the sentences to be served consecutively, he would be sending the opposite message: that there is nothing significant about armed robbery of the participants in ANY religious services (be it in a church, mosque, synagogue, or even the a local gathering of atheists for peace). That seems wrong, too.

  7. DPWally DPWally says:

    I’m not bothered that he “mentioned” religion – that’s almost unavoidable for a crime that took place during a religious service.

    It’s not acceptable that the judge seemed to base sentence on his religious authority and not his legal authority. He’s not authorized, either by the state or by a religious institution, to deliver God’s justice.

    Is North Carolina one of those states that passed a law against using Sharia law. If so, I think the defense could use that to overturn the sentence.

  8. Mark in Boston Mark in Boston says:

    Now suppose that instead it was not a church but just some secular venue or event with a basket for contributions, for instance for a local charity. Whose money is it when it’s in the basket? Not God’s of course because we’re not in a church. Not the local charity’s because it hasn’t been given to them yet. So would it even be a crime to steal the money in that case? I guess this judge would say no. If it’s a church it’s God’s money, but if it’s not a church and not a religious thing then it’s nobody’s money.

  9. The Vicar The Vicar says:

    I’m an atheist, and a fairly outspoken one at that. There is no reason to overturn this sentence; the guys committed an armed robbery and the sentence seems to be pretty much the usual thing for the charges to which they pled guilty.

    However, I would take this as a signal that this judge should be removed from the bench. His thought processes are clearly not the model of reason-uninfluenced-by-emotion that judges are supposed to hold. This man is unfit to be a judge.

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