By Nick Braune
[This essay was written earlier this week for my weekly column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier. Later this week, however, the Rubio trial concluded and the jury deliberation was quick. At the end of the essay, I will discuss the trial’s results and make some short comments on this closely watched case in the Rio Grande Valley. N.B.]
The retrial is in progress. Back in 2003 I urged my logic class to follow the case of John Allen Rubio, and the students were into it. A capital case, very interesting, lots of blood — Rubio and his common-law wife had killed their three children and the population was riled. But my students began peering behind the headlines. Although the insanity plea is a rare bird nowadays, the defense was using it, and it appeared to me and the students, after looking at definitions of insanity and some philosophy behind it, that Rubio indeed fit the definition.
Rubio’s wife, participating in the gruesome beheadings, was clearly insane too. (When I hear about a mom who does something like killing and mutilating her children, my first reaction following disgust is that there is something greatly unnatural there, undoubtedly serious mental problems. And as the trial proceeded, the class saw it that way.)
Psychiatrists at the first trial testified that Rubio had been clearly delusional, was schizophrenic, hearing voices; testimony showed that “for three days before the murders he scrubbed the apartment with bleach in order to keep evil away.” (The Monitor) His mental disorder was compounded during that period by frequent drug use.
The trouble started with Rubio’s mom. She hated children — that is my non-clinically trained, layman’s diagnosis. She introduced him to drugs and used him as a prostitute when he was 8 years old, according to testimony. (Subpoenaed for the current trial, she may provide interesting testimony. She also has a criminal record, drugs.) Abused through his childhood, teetering on the edge of sanity, huffing (putting chemicals or gasoline in a plastic bag and deep-breathing the fumes into the lungs until dizziness starts), what did Rubio do at 21? He shacked up with a woman just like mom, who had drug problems and destructive urges toward children.
But the jury in 2003 saw otherwise, finding Rubio sane and convicting him of murder, to the surprise of my class. He was sentenced to death.
Although America warehouses the mentally ill in prisons by the thousands and even executes some, basic civil norms urge that we help, not punish, severely sick people. Our legal system, rooted in the old common law traditions which evolved, with some lapses, in a progressive direction, has asked the jurors not simply to focus on who did the criminal act. Jurors have traditionally been charged with assessing the “mental element” involved in the act.
Example: Sir Edward Coke in 1593 reserved the term “murder” for those with “sound memory and discretion” (sanity) and who act with “malice aforethought” (premeditated evil), so juries were not just charged with deciding if the defendant “did it,” but whether there was a rationally deliberate, premeditating evil mind involved. The evolving humane law of England, when it looked at murderers to be punished, envisioned evil villains who calculate advantages and lay in wait to kill.
I picture some rich merchant in Chaucer’s time who had the opportunity to corner the market on fabulous jewels and plotted for weeks to murder his competitors, while throwing suspicion on someone else. To me, that merchant was the person that the common law would accuse of the highest crime before a jury of peers, not some raging peasant struck by the plague screaming incoherently and slashing at others with a knife. Rationally deliberated premeditated evil is what makes the crime so heinous. If the rich merchant killed the victims with slick poison instead of bloodying up the kitchen like delusional Rubio and his troubled wife did, a jury today might find the merchant’s actions less disgusting, but the spirit of the law and ethical considerations, I believe, should dictate otherwise. The merchant’s crime was worse.
On TV the criminals carefully scrub the apartment after the murder, but Rubio scrubbed it before the murder, trying to bleach away evil. But even this month, when Rubio is having his second trial, it is not because the appeals process reconsidered his sanity. (The retrial was granted because the eager prosecution was found to have improperly shown the jury a video of Rubio’s wife discussing the crime.)
If I were the prosecutor I would not have retried it; actually, I wouldn’t have tried it the first time. I would have saved fuss and money and gotten Rubio into a mental hospital where he could eat properly, remember to take his medications, talk through his life’s problems (his mom and wife) and stop huffing.
But no, our prosecutor brings in a New York consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Welner last week, paying him over $110,000 to counter the defense psychologists. Welner interviewed Rubio six years after the murder and dutifully concluded that Rubio was cleverly faking his symptoms back then. (With his website advertising his services as very convincing, Welner received some $245,000 during the Andrea Yates retrial in Houston several years ago, testifying she was sane when she drowned her children. Thankfully, the jury didn’t believe him in the Andrea Yates case.)
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[The Trial Results: This week the jury deliberated for four hours and found Rubio guilty of capital murder. On Thursday, July 29th, Judge Noe Gonzalez sentenced him to lethal injection. The Monitor quoted the Judge:
“I have sentenced more people to death than any other judge in South Texas. I have never seen a case like this…A lot was said back and forth about forgiveness. A lot was said about apologies. None of that matters…If you want forgiveness, you will have to get it from a higher source.
“The jury has found you guilty of the capital murder of Julissa Quesada, Mary Jane Rubio, and little John Rubio. Critics of capital punishment say the wait is worse than the execution, that is if you have any feelings. We’ll see about that in this case…I can’t imagine anyone hurting their children, much less at that age…Bailiff, shackle Mr. Rubio and escort him out.”
Three quick notes: 1. The Monitor says that prior to Rubio, 15 offenders have been sentenced to death in Hidalgo County. Rubio and his common-law wife had killed their children in Brownsville, but the trial had been moved to McAllen because of all the publicity there. This week I spoke to Silvia Garza of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty in McAllen. Her son was one of the 15. Although I knew she was trying to get a vigil set up at the court house before Rubio’s sentencing, I was unable to attend.
2. Rubio’s lawyer says that photographs of the murdered children proved to be the most disturbing part of the trial. “Jurors, research volunteers and assistants became physically ill when having to view them.” How conducive are photos like these for the deliberative process?
3. Rubio’s lawyer earlier in the trial said that Dr. Michael Welner advertises his victories like “trophies” on the internet. There are a lot of puff pieces about him there and about the classy New York consultation company he founded: The Forensic Panel. One article about his successful work said, “Dr. Welner was the principal prosecution mental health witness in all three of the first and only successful federal death penalty verdicts in the Northeast United States in decades: Gary Sampson (MA), Donald Fell (VT), and Ronell Wilson (NY).”)]