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Appeals court: Jurors can pray for guidance

Former representative to receive new trial

A jury box in a Sanford, Fla., courtroom Associated Press/Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel (file)

Appeals court: Jurors can pray for guidance

What’s wrong with a juror on a criminal case praying for divine guidance? Nothing, a federal appeals court said on Thursday, overturning a split decision by a three-judge panel of the full court.

“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,” Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in an opinion six other judges joined.

Former U.S. Rep Corrine Brown, D-Fla., was appealing her conviction in a 2017 criminal trial on charges that she used a phony charity as a personal slush fund. But one juror informed the judge that another juror had said he prayed and received guidance from the Holy Spirit. According to court documents, the juror said he also based his “not guilty” vote on the evidence. The judge decided the juror’s statements about divine guidance disqualified him and removed him. The alternate voted with the rest of the jury to convict Brown. A split panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision to remove the praying juror in January 2020.

“Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens,” Pryor wrote. “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.”

Pryor’s 48-page opinion sympathetically addresses language many religious Americans use to describe their relationship with God. He cited a Pew survey that indicates about a third of Americans believe “God or a higher power talks directly to them.” Pryor noted such a belief “was no more disqualifying by itself than a secular juror’s statement that his conscience or gut ‘told’ him the same.”

Dissenting Judge Charles Wilson, joined by three other judges, would have deferred to the judgment of the trial judge who talked directly with the praying juror: “The decision to remove Juror No. 13 was a tough call, and one the district court did not take lightly.”

But the majority disagreed. It overturned Brown’s conviction, and a new trial is set for later this year.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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