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Is the presence of a Bible in a deliberation room cause for a new trial? Is it possible that the Bible could have played a role in violating a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial before an impartial jury? The First Circuit Court of Appeal said no, doesn't think so.
Carlos Rodriguez was convicted by a jury of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Almost immediately after his verdict was delivered, the trial judge came to learn that a pocket-sized New Testament Bible was found in the jury deliberation room. The judge notified the defense counsel and counsel moved for a new trial. Defense counsel's main argument was that the presence of the Bible violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights-- namely, the right of a fair trail before an impartial jury and the right to confront the witness against him. Counsel asked that each juror be called back for a voir-dire. The motion was denied.
Rodriguez appealed. The First Circuit denied the motion, citing that there was no error on the trial court's denial of the motion.
In his Sixth Amendment argument, Rodriguez claimed that he was denied the right to confront the witness against him. He invoked the Confrontation Clause, which states in part that a jury verdict must be based on the evidence developed at trial. Thus, he claimed, extrinsic information or influences upon a jury's deliberations must be presumed prejudicial.
Rodriguez claimed that the Bible was such a powerful piece of literature that it "surpasses all other law." As such, he argued that its presence in the deliberation room improperly influenced the jury. He also alleged that the trial court's investigation into the alleged influence the Bible played in the verdict was inadequate. In his argument, he cited U.S. v. Lara Ramirez, where the court found the presence of the Bible had impacted the jury's verdict, when that Bible was used in the deliberations.
The trial court noted that the jury foreperson denied that the Bible came up at all in the deliberations. She also claimed that she never recalled seeing it opened. Thus, the trial court held that there was no evidence that the Bible played any role in influencing the jury's decision. Based on the interview of the foreperson, the court decided not to conduct an individual voir-dire of every juror. The First Circuit upheld the decision of the trial court and stated that there was no abuse of discretion by the trial court.
So we return to the original question: Can the presence of a Bible unfairly prejudice the defendant in a criminal trial? Certainly. But absent a showing that the Bible played any role in the jury deliberations, mistrial is not an option.