Legal System

Can the Holy Spirit Participate in Jury Deliberations?

Holy Trinity (artist's impression)

Well, not directly.

This question has been raised in United States v. Brown, a criminal case pending in Florida. In May, a jury convicted former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) on 18 of 22 fraud counts involving a bogus charity organization. The court is now considering post-trial motions, and Brown is seeking a new trial, arguing it was wrong to remove a juror who said he believed Brown was innocent because the Holy Spirit told him so.

According to the filings, after about two days of deliberations one of the jurors sent a note to the judge with concerns about “Juror 13.” (This was a human juror, not the Holy Spirit—presumably someone else had been excused earlier.) The note said Juror 13 had told the others that “[a] Higher Being told me Corrine Brown was Not Guilty on all charges” [sic] and that he “trusted the Holy Ghost.” The note-writer did not think this affected the other jurors, but was concerned about 13’s ability to deliberate and follow the court’s instructions.

Asked about this statement, Juror 13 told the court that he had indeed prayed about the matter and had “received information as to what I was told to do.” He said he had been receiving information from “My Father in Heaven” throughout the case, but clarified that the specific information that Brown was not guilty on all charges came from “the Holy Spirit.” He also insisted, however, that he was basing his decision only on the jury instructions and evidence presented in court, apparently reconciling this by saying his religious beliefs were only “going to the testimonies of the people given here,” and that he would render a decision based on that testimony and the evidence presented in court.

The judge said he found Juror 13 “very earnest” and “very sincere,” and thought he believed he was trying to follow the court’s instructions. But “there is no question,” he said, that Juror 13 believed he was getting both information and directions from a “higher authority.” “I want to be very clear,” the judge continued, “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” and “this situation, where the juror is actually saying that an outside force … told him that Ms. Brown was not guilty on those charges.” He then dismissed Juror 13 and replaced him with an alternate. The conviction followed.

Brown’s motion for a new trial is based solely on the dismissal of Juror 13. The parties agree that a court cannot dismiss a dissenting juror during deliberations unless there is “no substantial possibility” that the juror’s view is actually based on the evidence as opposed to the allegedly improper thing. Brown’s lawyer argued that, in fact, “there is a substantial possibility the holy spirit was actually the juror’s own mind or spirit telling him that one or more witnesses had not testified truthfully.” (Emphasis added.) Juror 13 did not say specifically that “the holy spirit is an external force,” the motion continued, and “it was not appropriate to presume that the juror’s reference to the holy spirit was evidence of an external force, rather than evidence of the juror’s appreciation of the seriousness of his duty…. For some, the holy spirit is not an external force, but rather an aspect of their identity.”

Given this argument, it’s surely no accident that “holy spirit” isn’t capitalized there or anywhere else in the motion. The motion also includes a footnote on Page 1 saying that Webster’s defines “spirit” as “the incorporeal part of humans, or an aspect of this, as the mind or soul.” In other words, Brown is basically arguing that this wasn’t the Holy Spirit, just holy spirit. What’s wrong with listening to your own holy spirit?

The prosecution, of course, misses no opportunity to capitalize “Holy Spirit” and use the definite article. Which, after all, Juror 13 also used (“I said the [H/h]oly [S/s]pirit told me that”; emphasis added). He also said “my Father in Heaven,” and it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t capitalizing those words when he said them. Although he did say he could follow the law and base his vote on the evidence, there’s no getting around the fact that he also specifically said he had been in contact with two-thirds of the Trinity (apparently Jesus either abstained or was outvoted) and had “received information as to what I was told to do.” There are plenty of cases, the prosecution noted, holding that pointing out Bible passages, or just bringing a Bible into the jury room, was an improper external influence on the deliberations. Here, it argued, the influence was (allegedly) even more direct.

I think this is a tougher call than it might seem. Conviction requires a unanimous verdict, and so removing a juror who is plainly going to vote not guilty is a big deal. Religious beliefs and other values are necessarily going to inform jurors’ decisions, and this juror did say he could stick to the evidence and jury instructions. But that just doesn’t seem consistent with his admission that he thought he was actually being “told what to do” by a divine power. That’s the distinction the trial judge drew, and it’s probably right. If you believe you’re getting divine instructions, you couldn’t exactly follow the judge’s instructions instead, assuming there were a conflict.

There is also the fact that all the other jurors seem to have believed Brown was guilty as hell, but I’m not sure that’s directly relevant to the motion.