Sunday, May 09, 2021

11th Circuit: Juror Who Heard From Holy Spirit Should Not Have Been Removed

In United States v. Brown, (11th Cir., May 6, 2021), the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, by a vote of 7-4 held that a district court judge abused his discretion in replacing a juror with an alternate in the trial of a former Florida Congresswoman who was convicted on most of the fraud, ethics and tax violation charges against her. The majority summarized:

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. 

Two concurring and two dissenting opinions were also filed. Judge Rosenbaum's dissent, joined by Judge Wilson and Martin, said in part:

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.

A 3-judge panel of the 11th Circuit had affirmed the district court's decision. (See prior posting.) Politico reports on the en banc decision.