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"The Holy Spirit Told Me" Is Not a Valid Way to Reach a Verdict, Split Panel Holds

Woman with folded hands in prayer
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on January 17, 2020 3:44 PM

Why juries reach the verdicts they do is a billion-dollar question. But, as Eleventh Circuit Court Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote in a recent opinion, “if the right to a jury trial means anything, it means a right to a verdict based on the evidence." That led Judge Rosenbaum and District Court Judge Anne Conway, sitting on the panel by designation, to conclude that a juror who said that “the Holy Spirit told him" former Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown was not guilty on all counts related to a charitable fraud scheme was properly dismissed. The former Congresswoman was ultimately convicted to five years in prison for fraud and tax evasion.

On the first day of deliberations, a juror said that a higher power told him the defendant was innocent. This led a fellow juror to raise concerns to District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan. After questioning, Judge Corrigan concluded that the juror, while sincere in believing that he could fulfill his role as a juror, was incapable of deciding the case based on the evidence presented.

The majority did not find fault in the fact-finding of Judge Corrigan and held that the court “certainly did not abuse its discretion" in dismissing the juror. Otherwise, a juror in the Eleventh Circuit could theoretically find a defendant guilty based not on the evidence presented, but solely on the order of a higher power. This, the majority reasoned, is an unacceptable outcome.

Divine Guidance or Outside Influence?

The majority agreed that praying to a higher power for guidance is not disqualifying, consistent with precedent. The issue in this case is whether a juror who believes a higher power spoke directly to them about whether someone is guilty or innocent constitutes an outside influence. Jurors are told prior to trial that they can base their decision only on what they hear and see in the courtroom. Further, jurors agree that they have no religious beliefs that would interfere with basing their decision on the evidence presented.

Judge William Pryor, in a lengthy dissent, argued that the majority conflated receiving information from an external source with seeking divine guidance. Quoting extensively from religious texts, Judge Pryor argued that the majority did not understand the role of prayer to the mindset of the juror in question. While Judge Pryor agreed with the majority that a juror cannot dismiss the evidence presented in trial, he found the statements made by the juror did not cross this threshold. Rather, he felt the majority put too much emphasis on the certainty and clarity with which the juror felt he was receiving divine guidance. As Judge Pryor put it, “if jurors are entitled to think they have received divine guidance in weighing the evidence—and they are—they must also be entitled to think they have received clear guidance."

A Blurry Line

“So help me God" remains part of the juror's oath in many federal courtrooms. And, it has repeatedly been held that prayer can be a part of the jury's deliberations. The issue, as demonstrated here, is determining when a juror is unable or unwilling to base their decision on the evidence presented due to their religious belief.

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