The US Supreme Court declined on Tuesday to hear an appeal by three young North Carolina men who claim a judge inserted his personal religious views into their case by sentencing them to de facto life prison terms for a robbery that netted less than $3,000.
The justices dismissed the appeal without comment.
What raised the judge’s ire at the sentencing was the fact that the three men chose as their target an ongoing Sunday service at the Ridgeview Presbyterian Church in Bakersville.
The men entered the church wearing ski masks, and they were armed with two guns and a roll of duct tape. Their loot included money, cellphones, keys, and other personal property taken from the worshipers. They even cleaned out that morning’s collection plate.
At some point, one of the guns discharged into the church’s floor. No one was injured.
The men were arrested in their car shortly after leaving the church. They admitted their crime and agreed to plead guilty to 11 counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
At sentencing, they apologized to the church members and the community.
Superior Court Judge James Baker was apparently unmoved. “You didn’t just steal money from people,” he told the three. “You took God’s money. You took the Lord’s money.”
The judge added: “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 Baker sentenced each defendant to 53 to 71 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
The young men – Josiah Deyton; his brother, Andrew; and Jonathan Koniak – appealed all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, to no avail. A federal judge and a federal appeals-court panel also rejected their claims.
“The judge ... expressed his beliefs that the boys had stolen God’s money – money that the judge believed was to be used to bring about his God’s kingdom on earth,” Hoang Lam, a lawyer with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, wrote in his brief urging the high court to take up the case.
“He let it be known that they offended [the judge’s] religious sensibility and that their action amounted to irreverence,” Mr. Lam said. “He allowed his own personal religious beliefs and his own feeling of victimization into his sentencing decision.”
The lawyer added: “He sentenced these boys as harshly as he did because they chose to rob a church, rather than a restaurant, a bank, or some other secular entity.”
The injection of a judge’s religious beliefs into a sentencing decision violates the constitutional guarantee of due process, the lawyer said.
“It is irrelevant that the applicable law allowed the judge to sentence the boys to consecutive terms,” Lam said. “Sentencing discretion must be exercised within the boundaries of due process,” without influence from a judge’s possible religious views, the lawyer said.
Lower courts rejected the argument, concluding that the judge was repeating the concerns and observations of members of the victimized congregation.
Clarence Joe DelForge, North Carolina assistant attorney general, acknowledged in his brief that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., had ruled in 1991 that the judge who imposed a lengthy sentence on televangelist Jim Bakker abused his discretion by allowing personal religious views to enter the sentencing calculus in that case.
“Our Constitution, of course, does not require a person to surrender his or her religious beliefs upon the assumption of judicial office,” the Fourth Circuit said in the Bakker case. “Courts, however, cannot sanction sentencing procedures that create the perception of the bench as a pulpit from which judges announce their personal sense of religiosity and simultaneously punish defendants for offending it.”
Mr. DelForge said the judge’s actions in the church robbery case were different. “Judge Baker’s statements regarding ‘God’s money,’ and ‘God’s people,’ referred to what the victims reported,” he wrote. “The thrust of Judge Baker’s comments was the fact that these crimes were especially serious because they involved traumatizing people at gunpoint where ordinarily they would feel safe.”
DelForge said the judge’s decision to quote the Bible concerning the Lord’s “vengeance” did not insert religion into the sentence. “Judge Baker was saying the judicial system, not divine law, should punish [the defendants],” he said.
The case was Deyton v. Keller (12-6230).