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.

“Dismissing a deliberating juror for believing prayer is effective excludes the hundreds of millions of Americans who seek divine guidance through prayer from the noble and civic duty of jury service,” said Lea Patterson, Counsel for First Liberty. “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?  If this decision stands millions of Americans are disqualified from fulfilling their civic duty as jurors simply because they believe that God answers prayer.”

 

News Release
For Immediate Release: 9.24.20
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

Eleventh Circuit: Jurors Might Have a Prayer
Panel agrees to hear en banc appeal of case where juror was dismissed because they sought divine guidance during trial deliberations   

Atlanta, GA.—Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted a request for an en banc hearing in United States of America v. Corrine Brown.

“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,” said Lea Patterson, Counsel for First Liberty. “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?  If this decision stands millions of Americans are disqualified from fulfilling their civic duty as jurors simply because they believe that God answers prayer.”

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 that he was basing his opinion about the case on the evidence, the judge determined that the juror had illegally “received guidance” from outside the trial because the juror was relying on prayer to guide his decision.

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.  Judge William Pryor dissented, emphasizing that both the district court and the majority opinion misunderstood the nature of prayer and that by finding the juror’s religious expression inherently disqualifying beyond a reasonable doubt endangered the ability of qualified, religious citizens to serve on juries.

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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.

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