Jury Prayer Case | Cases | First Liberty

So Help Me God

In July 2016, a federal grand jury indicted former Congresswoman Corrine Brown on fraud charges; the case proceeded to a jury trial in April 2017. During the jury’s deliberations, the district court removed a juror who stated to other jurors that he had prayed for and believed he received the guidance of the Holy Spirit in considering the case.

Prayer Disqualifies

Upon questioning by the judge, the juror confirmed that he had no “political, religious, or moral beliefs that would preclude [him] from serving as a fair and impartial juror” and that he was not “having any difficulties with any religious or moral beliefs that are, at this point, bearing on or interfering with [his] ability to decide the case on the facts presented and on the law as [the court] gave it to [him] in the instructions.” Yet, the district court found beyond a reasonable doubt that the juror’s statement that he trusted the Holy Spirit categorically disqualified him from serving on the jury!

After the court removed this juror and substituted an alternate, Brown was convicted on all but two charges. She then moved for a new trial, arguing that the juror was improperly removed, and the district court denied the motion. Brown appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, but the three-judge panel affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Pryor Dissents

Judge William Pryor disagreed with the decision.In a scathing dissent, he explained several significant problems with the decision.

He wrote, “First, the district court erroneously equated the divine guidance [the juror] believed he had received with ‘religious beliefs’ that render a person unable to perform the duties of a juror. Second, the district court erroneously conflated divine guidance with reliance on ‘an outside force,’ and the majority necessarily adopts that conflation by affirming the dismissal of [the juror]. Third, the district court jumped to, and the majority now adopts, the unwarranted conclusion that [the juror’s] comments “by definition” meant that he was not basing his decision on the evidence. Of course, if religious jurors may pray for God’s guidance, it follows that they must be entitled to receive God’s guidance, or at least to believe that they have received it. The majority faults [the juror] for believing that he ‘received information from his Father in Heaven.’ But every prayer implies a hope that the prayer be answered.”

First Liberty Legal Action

Attorneys with First Liberty Institute partnered with the case lead attorney to petition the Eleventh Circuit to rehear the case en banc. In September of 2020, the court agreed to hear the case en banc and vacated its previous ruling.  In November 2020, First Liberty filed its opening brief.

“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 Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty. “Dismissing a deliberating juror for believing prayer is effective denies the noble and civic duty to serve as a juror to hundreds of millions of Americans who seek divine guidance through prayer.”

 

News Release
For Immediate Release: 11.24.20
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

So Help Me God: Appeal Begins in Case Where Juror Was Dismissed for Seeking Divine Guidance During Deliberations
First Liberty Institute submits initial brief in en banc appeal at Eleventh Circuit 

Atlanta, GA.—First Liberty Institute, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and Kent & McFarland filed their opening brief in United States v. Corrine Brown, on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit en banc, arguing that a juror was impermissibly dismissed during deliberation for praying for guidance and believing his prayers were answered.

You can read the brief here.

“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 Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty. “Dismissing a deliberating juror for believing prayer is effective denies the noble and civic duty to serve as a juror to hundreds of millions of Americans who seek divine guidance through prayer.”

Paul Clement, former U.S. Solicitor General, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and First Liberty network attorney, said, “In a nation that values religious tolerance, the government should expect that religious jurors will seek divine guidance about the daunting responsibility of passing legal judgement on a fellow citizen.”

In the brief, attorneys explain, “A nation that enshrines religious toleration in its founding document and invokes the religious beliefs of its citizenry to reinforce their public oaths cannot dismiss jurors based on the way they express their religious convictions.  And a nation that enshrines the jury-trial right in that same charter cannot lightly deprive a defendant of a juror who has expressed a preliminary inclination to acquit.  Yet that is precisely what happened” in this case.

In July 2016, a federal grand jury indicted former Congresswoman Corrine Brown on fraud charges; the case proceeded to a jury trial in April 2017.  During the jury’s deliberations, the district court removed a juror who stated to other jurors that he had prayed for and believed he received the guidance of the Holy Spirit in considering the case.  The judge questioned the juror, who confirmed that he had no “political, religious, or moral beliefs that would preclude [him] from serving as a fair and impartial juror” and that he was not “having any difficulties with any religious or moral beliefs that are, at this point, bearing on or interfering with [his] ability to decide the case on the facts presented and on the law as [the court] gave it to [him] in the instructions.”  Despite the juror’s repeated assurances to the court that his religious beliefs were not interfering with his ability to follow the law and the evidence, the judge determined that the juror had illegally “received guidance” from outside the trial.

Brown moved for a new trial, arguing that the juror was improperly removed, but the district court denied the motion and imposed sentence.  Brown appealed, and a panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court decision.  In September, the Eleventh Circuit agreed to hear the appeal en banc.

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans. 

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.


News Release – 9.24.20

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