The Holy Spirit in the Jury Room
USA v. Corrine Brown
Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat who served more than two years in prison after being found guilty of running a sham charity, was granted a new trial by a federal appeals court.
On May 6, 2021, an en banc panel of 11 judges of the 11th Circuit 7 to 4 decided the criminal case of USA v. Corrine Brown and reversed the earlier decision of a 3 judge panel.
The lead paragraph should whet your appetite for more:
This appeal requires us to decide whether a district judge abused his discretion by removing a juror who expressed, after the start of deliberations, that the Holy Spirit told him that the defendant, Corrine Brown, was not guilty on all charges. The juror also repeatedly assured the district judge that he was following the jury instructions and basing his decision on the evidence admitted at trial, and the district judge found him to be sincere and credible. But the district judge concluded that the juror’s statements about receiving divine guidance were categorically disqualifying. Because the record establishes a substantial possibility that the juror was rendering proper jury service, the district judge abused his discretion by dismissing the juror. The removal violated Brown’s right under the Sixth Amendment to a unanimous jury verdict. We vacate Brown’s convictions and sentence and remand for a new trial.
It’s a 98 page opinion which includes lengthy dissents and is very interesting. The things written that struck me were:
1. So, for a district judge to find that this standard of proof is satisfied, he must
determine “with utmost certainty” that a juror has refused to base his verdict on the
law as instructed and the evidence admitted at trial.
2. Without that tough standard, we would risk erosion of a fundamental safeguard against “being judged by a special class…. We must remember that “the Federal Judiciary is hardly
a cross-section of America.” …. A district judge, who belongs to a select class of highly educated professionals, might remove a juror by honestly misinterpreting the juror’s language as proof of misconduct, and thereby substitute his own judgment in place of the ordinary citizen’s. … And appellate judges, no less part of that select class, might easily make that same mistake. So we require that only an unambiguous record may withstand reversal.
3. Here, the district judge found that Juror No. 13 was “very earnest” and “very sincere.” And he found that “upon . . . observing” the juror, that is, his demeanor, there was “no question” that he made the supposedly problematic statements—indeed, the juror “readily admitted” as much. These credibility determinations are not contested on appeal.
4.Our precedent requires us to evaluate whether a substantial possibility—that is, “a tangible possibility, not just a speculative hope”—existed that Juror No. 13 was basing his decision only on the evidence and the law.
5. For all we know, Juror No. 13’s view that Brown was “not guilty on all charges” was not even entrenched. The record does not support the district judge’s prediction that Juror No. 13 necessarily “would have continued in the same mindset.” True, Juror No. 13 reportedly said that he “trusted the Holy Ghost” a few hours after he said that the Holy Spirit “told” him of Brown’s across-the-boar innocence. But Juror No. 8 reported that the other jurors asked Juror No. 13 to base his verdict on the evidence and the law. She never said that Juror No. 13 refused that request or was otherwise obstinate.
6. The district judge faulted Juror No. 13 for “express[ing] a conclusion from the beginning of the deliberations and without discussion with his fellow jurors.” But jurors commonly share their initial views of a defendant’s guilt or innocence at the beginning of deliberations. The evidence does not support a finding that Juror No. 13 would not reconsider his initial impression no matter what the other jurors said during the deliberations in which he was participating.
7. Religious beliefs may provide the basis for removal when those beliefs do not permit them to complete their jury service.
8. Jurors may pray for and believe they have received divine guidance as they determine another person’s innocence or guilt, a profound civic duty but a daunting task to say the least…. Prayer is “a part of the personal decision-making process of many people, a process that is employed when serving on a jury.”…. “To ask that jurors become fundamentally different people when they enter the jury room is at odds with the idea that the jury be ‘drawn from a fair cross section of the community[.]’” The district judge was wrong to conclude that Juror No. 13’s statements that he received guidance in response to prayers were categorically “a bridge too far.”
9. Juror No. 13’s vivid and direct religious language—read in the light of his other statements—suggests he was doing nothing more than praying for and receiving divine guidance as he evaluated the evidence or, in secular terms, provided an explanation of his internal mental processes—all consistent with proper jury service.
10. Members of some religious groups are more likely than others to report twoway communication with God, underscoring that different people are used to thinking and talking about their prayer life in different ways—and that courts may not conclude that their vernacular alone disqualifies them from jury service. “Communicating with God is most common among evangelical Protestants and those in the historically black Protestant tradition, with nearly everyone in both groups saying they talk to God. Six-in-ten people in the historically black Protestant tradition say this communication is a two-way street,” making them the only group with a majority saying so. Id. Among evangelicals, 45 percent of respondents said that God speaks to them directly.
11. Religious believers commonly describe God’s guidance less as “an outward voice” than as “an inward whisper, a deep speaking into the heart, an interior knowing.” Consider, for example, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s account of “hear[ing] the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.
12. Juror No. 13’s vernacular that the Holy Spirit “told” him Brown was “not guilty on all charges” was no more disqualifying by itself than a secular juror’s statement that his conscience or gut “told” him the same.
13. This record establishes more than a substantial possibility that Juror No. 13 did not forsake his oath and instead was fulfilling his duty. Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens. The removal of Juror No. 13—a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her—deprived her of one.
And from one of the dissents:
14. A hypothetical posed at oral argument brings this point to life. Imagine that instead of saying “the Holy Spirit told me Corrine Brown is not guilty,” Juror No. 13 said “Satan told me that Corrine Brown is guilty on all charges.” See Oral Argument Recording at 10:03–10:50 (February 23, 2021). Assuming this hypothetical otherwise mirrored our case, Brown acknowledged that the result would have to be the same as here—the juror would have to remain, even if the district court found, based on its inquiry, that the juror was not capable of deciding the case as instructed. Id. at 10:50–10:57; 13:06–13:34. That answer is as telling as it is unsettling. It shows that allowing wide latitude for jurors to base decisions on something other than the law and the evidence—and restricting district courts from policing such issues—will imperil Sixth Amendment rights by opening the door to arbitrary verdicts.
No system we can engineer will be perfect. But the one we should strive for, and the one that will best protect Sixth Amendment rights, is one that instills confidence that verdicts will be anchored in the facts and the law. If a complaint surfaces during deliberations, district courts should have discretion to inquire, just as the court did here. And if the court determines as a matter of fact that there is no substantial possibility that the juror is rendering a decision based on the merits, we should review that finding deferentially. Doing so would bolster Sixth Amendment protections—not weaken them.
15. I do not question the majority’s depiction of how many people have described prayer. But neither do I view this “internal” versus “external” distinction as central to deciding this appeal. In instances like this, a district court’s job is not to make any theological determination about the nature of prayer. The task is simply to determine whether the juror in question is performing his duty as instructed by the court.
16. Every judge of this Court agrees on this much: the same rule governs dismissal of both the juror who says his religious authority told him the defendant is not guilty on all charges and the one who says his religious authority told him the defendant is guilty on all charges. So let’s be clear about what we’re really doing today: we are holding that a district judge is powerless to dismiss a juror who, on a record like this one, says the Holy Spirit told him the defendant is guilty on all charges and he trusts the Holy Spirit—even though the judge finds after investigation that the juror is not capable of basing his guilty verdict on the evidence but instead will base his verdict on what he perceives to be a divine revelation. Just think about that. We are prohibiting district judges, on records like this one, from dismissing jurors they find beyond a reasonable doubt will return a guilty verdict that is not based on the evidence. Why bother with the trial?