Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

A religion test for jurors?

Courts | The removal of a jury member for praying could result in a retrial
by Steve West
Posted 9/28/20, 05:23 pm

The defendant in a fraud case said a federal judge in Florida unfairly booted the one juror who thought she was innocent. In April 2017, a jury convicted former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., of federal tax and fraud charges. She received a sentence of five years in prison for allegedly spending money donated to her charity on personal expenses.

During the trial, a juror informed the judge that one of the other members of the jury said he prayed and received guidance from the Holy Spirit. He believed Brown was not guilty. The judge replaced the juror with an alternate, who voted with the others to convict Brown.

In January, a panel of judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to uphold Brown’s conviction, saying the juror had put in doubt whether he could make a decision based solely on the evidence. In his dissent, Chief Judge William Pryor Jr. of the 11th Circuit disagreed that seeking divine guidance disqualified a juror.

“As long as the object of … prayers is an honest attempt to discern the facts from the evidence and to apply the law to those facts, the prayerful meditations of such a juror are no less valid a form of deliberation than any other,” he wrote.

Religious liberty organizations also criticized the ruling, saying it could effectively impose a religious test that would exclude Christians and others who pray from serving on juries.

“How is it possible that we demand a juror take an oath invoking God’s aid in rendering a verdict but then dismiss that same juror for taking that oath seriously?” said First Liberty’s Lea Patterson. “If this decision stands, millions of Americans are disqualified from fulfilling their civic duty as jurors simply because they believe that God answers prayer.”

On Thursday, the full 11th Circuit vacated the panel’s decision and said it would hear the case. It hasn’t yet set a date for the hearing. Officials released the 73-year-old Brown in April to avoid exposing her to COVID-19.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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