If there’s a trial by jury, the hope — what the entire trial hinges upon — is that the the jurors will fairly evaluate the arguments presented by both sides and come to their decision based solely on reason and logic and evidence.
Right now, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) is on trial for allegedly filing false tax returns and committing mail and wire fraud. Serious stuff. Both sides have presented their cases, and the jurors are now deliberating the verdict. If Brown is found guilty, it could mean several years in jail.
There’s just one problem.
Early in their discussions, one of the jurors (known as “Juror #13,” even though there are only 12 of them in the room) told his peers, “A Higher Being told me Corrine Brown was Not Guilty on all charges.” He added that he “trusted the Holy Ghost.”
That wasn’t a statement based on evidence. That was right out of the box before deliberations really began. And no matter what you think about Brown’s guilt, that’s not the sort of statement you’d ever want a juror to make because it suggests no amount of evidence in the other direction could ever sway him.
The reason we know what Juror #13 said is because Juror #8 sent a letter to the judge in the case explaining what happened, pointing out that “other members of the Jury share my concern.”
What followed was an absolutely fascinating exchange between the Judge and the attorneys for both sides. Really, you should read the full transcript of how they handled the situation because it’ll make you feel really good about our legal system, that the people with power want to get this right.
In that transcript U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan is trying to figure out what to do with Juror #13, so he solicits input from James W. Smith III (Brown’s attorney) and Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva (acting on behalf of the state).
Smith’s argument, as you’d expect, is that it’s not weird for a Juror to weigh the evidence and let God point him in the right direction. It’s the same way Christians might weigh a new job opportunity, making a decision based on things like salary and location… and then saying “God pulled me in this direction.” That’s perfectly normal behavior for religious people, he implies. Hell, jurors everywhere may pray for guidance even while they weigh the evidence in front of them.
Duva’s argument, on the other hand, is the one I suspect most atheists would make. The issue isn’t that the Juror is getting guidance from above, but that no alternative evidence will be given equal weight. Sure, he’s concerned that Juror #13 is leaning in his opponent’s direction, but as he suggests multiple times, he’s not just shilling for his side:
… the government would have that view [that Juror #13 should be dismissed] if he said, “I believe from my Father in Heaven that she’s guilty of all charges and, therefore, I’m going to vote guilty.” It goes both ways… in no way should this be part of the process.
Both jurors (#13 and #8) were brought in for further questioning and none of the concerns were alleviated, so Judge Corrigan eventually decided to dismiss Juror #13:
… based upon my reading of the case law in other cases where religious beliefs have caused a juror to be struck, this statement by the juror, which he forthrightly admitted to, and which was accurately, apparently, recounted by Juror No. 8, who brought this to our attention, is a disqualifying statement.
I want to be very clear that I am drawing a distinction between someone who’s on a jury who is religious and who is praying for guidance or seeking inspiration, or whatever mode that person uses to try to come to a proper decision, from this situation, where the juror is actually saying that an outside force, that is, a higher being, a Holy Spirit, told him that Ms. Brown was not guilty on those charges. And I think that’s just an expression that’s a bridge too far, consistent with jury service as we know it.
It’s absolutely the right move, and the Judge goes out of his way to make clear this is not religious discrimination. The only concern is that Juror #13 was not following the Court’s direction to rely only on the evidence before him in order to make a decision.
Smith said he planned to seek a new trial.
(via Religion Clause. Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Jocelyn for the link)