Taunton -- Is it cold-blooded murder for a man to starve his baby son to death if he sincerely believes God will intervene at the last moment and save the boy?
Can religion be an excuse for murder?
Those were among the philosophical questions posed by the recent trial of Jacques D. Robidoux, an Attleboro religious sect elder who was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Samuel Robidoux, who died of starvation three days before his first birthday.
For the jurors who decided Robidoux's fate, it was only a question of law, according to several who were interviewed recently.
"With the law the way it is, it's pretty cut-and-dried," said Michael Thompson, a 20-year-old college student from Norton. "From the beginning of our deliberations, we all knew he was guilty of something. It was more determining which charge."
The jury had been asked to consider four possible guilty verdicts: first- and second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and assault and battery. Samuel starved to death over the course of 51 days after his parents stopped giving him solid food in response to a vision Robidoux's sister, G. Michelle Mingo, said she received from God. The boy was only breast-fed, but his mother, Karen E. Robidoux, was pregnant again and unable to produce enough milk to sustain him.
Jurors heard a lot about the insular sect's religious beliefs. About an ill-fated trip to Maine, with no food, changes of clothing or even money for gas. About "leadings" when members said they received instructions from God. About the banning of medical care, books and eyeglasses.
But many jurors had expected to hear more religion. Especially when Robidoux, 29, took the stand in his own defense.
A 66-year-old widow from Freetown, who talked on the condition her name not be used, said she expected Robidoux to offer his religious beliefs as an excuse.
Instead, Robidoux talked very little about his religion.
Jeffrey Jason II, a 19-year-old college student from Fairhaven, said he figured defense lawyer Francis M. O'Boy probably told Robidoux to tone down the religion on the stand.
"I think in some ways it might have hurt him a little bit, but I don't think it affected our decision all that much," said Thompson.
Jason said Robidoux's testimony humanized him. "It made me feel for him," said Jason. "Before the cross-examination he seemed like a good guy to me."
But then prosecutor Walter J. Shea had his shot at Robidoux.
"Some of the things during the cross-examination made it very clear-cut," said Jason.
On cross-examination, Robidoux admitted that he intentionally deprived Samuel of food, even when he saw the boy was obviously not getting enough nourishment.
"Hearing those answers right there were what pushed me over the edge," said Jason. "It just kind of expedited my decision."
The juror from Freetown said that, as she saw it, Robidoux admitted it all on the stand.
Still, jurors struggled in deciding whether they should find Robidoux guilty of first-degree murder or of manslaughter. They pretty much ruled out second-degree murder because the atrocity of starving a baby for 51 days would mean first-degree murder if the verdict was murder. But the line between murder and manslaughter was less clear. It came down to Robidoux's intent.
"I don't think a lot of us were totally convinced he intended to murder Samuel," said Thompson.
Jason agreed. "It's not like he went into it thinking, 'I'm going to kill my kid.' " But, he noted, Robidoux could have stopped it by feeding his son.
And that is where the case turned in the eyes of the jury. Under what is known as "third-prong malice," people can be convicted of murder if a reasonable person should have realized that their actions would lead to death.
Jurors found Robidoux did not exhibit much remorse. "I know he's sorry his son is no longer living. I don't know if he feels he didn't do the right thing," Jason said.
What amazed the Freetown juror most, though, was the way the sect's religious beliefs seemed to paralyze other members and stop them from saving the baby. She was astounded at the power Robidoux appeared to have over the minds of other sect members.
But that did not affect her view of the case.
"What it came down to: Religion is no excuse for murder."