Decided: June 15, 2012
On appeal, defendants challenged the district court’s denial of their petition for habeas corpus, arguing that the sentencing judge erred by making comments that reflected an impermissible religious bias which infected the sentencing procedure in violation of their due process rights. Because defendants’ appeal stemmed from comments made by the trial judge at a state sentencing proceeding, the Fourth Circuit applied its traditional deference afforded to sentencing courts and ultimately affirmed the district court’s denial of defendants’ habeas corpus relief.
This case stemmed from defendants’ robbery of a Sunday morning worship service, in which the three defendants carried firearms into a congregation, robbed the parishioners of money and valuables totaling $2,670, and fled the scene. Defendants’ were subsequently captured by the police and confessed to robbing the church and its members. Eventually, the three defendants all pled guilty on eleven counts of armed robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and the trial judge held a consolidated sentencing hearing for all three.
The issue on appeal centers on statements made by the trial judge before announcing his sentencing decision. In these statements, the trial judge made numerous religious references, including statements such as “There is scripture that says ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord’ but every now and then I think the judicial system has to contribute what it can.” Defendants did not directly appeal their sentences but instead filed “Motions for Appropriate Relief” in state court and a petition for habeas corpus in the Western District of North Carolina. The federal magistrate judge’s recommendation denying their habeas corpus petition was adopted by the district court.
Defendants’ argument on appeal relied on the Fourth Circuit’s holding in United States v. Bakker, 925 F.2d 728 (4th Cir. 1991), where the Court reversed a defendant’s sentence because the district judge at sentencing announced his “personal sense of religiosity and simultaneously punish[ed] defendants for offending it.” The Court found Defendants’ reliance on this case to be flawed for two reasons: (1) it ignored the limitations on the scope of review and sources of authority placed on federal habeas analysis by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); and (2) Bakker and other precedent cases do not disqualify under AEDPA standards the sentencing judge’s comments at issue in the case. The Court concluded that “[p]reserving the free exercise of all religions permits society – through its judges – to offer pointed condemnation of crimes that inhibit the practice of any faith.”
Ultimately, the Court determined that Defendants’ disruption of worship services especially affected the community, and thus, it was appropriate for the sentencing judge to take the circumstances of the crime into account in his sentencing determination. The Court based its decision to deny Defendants’ habeas relief on two main findings. First, the Court found that the sentencing judge’s comments did not reflect the court’s own sense of religious propriety but instead voiced the expressions of the community. Second, even if the sentencing judge adopted some of the religious opinions stated as his own, the Court found that such act did not rise to the level of a due process error mandating habeas relief.
– Allison Hite