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Juror Cut for Citing Holy Spirit Is Crux of Constitutional Case

Feb. 22, 2021, 11:00 AM

The full Eleventh Circuit is set to consider Tuesday whether a juror in a federal criminal trial should have been removed after he said the Holy Spirit told him former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) was innocent of fraud and tax charges.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit will decide whether a three-judge panel of that court got it wrong when it upheld the trial judge’s finding that the juror couldn’t fairly base his decision on the evidence. After he was pulled, the jury went on to convict Brown, who was later sentenced to five years in prison.

The case has drawn the attention of eight Republican attorneys general, the Christian rights group American Center for Law and Justice, and a Stanford professor who has written on evangelicals, who have all filed briefs seeking to overturn Brown’s conviction.

People of Faith

The exclusion violated the man’s First Amendment right to serve on the jury without disqualification for his religious beliefs or practice, and violated Brown’s right to a jury “that was empaneled without such invidious discrimination,” the ACLJ says in its filing.

The attorneys general told the court the decision “subjects many people of faith to adverse treatment.”

The amici states—Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Texas—told the court that they have an interest “in ensuring that no classes of their citizens, including people of faith who believe that God communicates with them, are illegitimately excluded from jury service.”

The decision should be reversed because it “threatens to unfairly exclude these religious individuals,” the state AGs say.

Professor Tanya Marie Luhrmann of Stanford University says in her own brief the conviction must be reversed because “a substantial possibility” exists that the juror based his decision about Brown’s innocence only on the evidence and the law, as he should have.

Evidence, Facts

Brown was prosecuted on fraud and tax charges stemming from her involvement with a charity. She and co-conspirators allegedly used her position as a House representative to collect more than $800,000, but spent all but $1,200 on themselves.

During deliberation in Brown’s federal trial, Juror Eight told the court about another juror’s religious-based comments. The trial judge asked Juror 13 if he just prayed for inspiration to make the right decision based on the evidence, which is acceptable, or if a higher power told him Brown wasn’t guilty. The juror said the Holy Spirit spoke to him.

The judge removed the juror, finding he disregarded the court’s instruction that he make his decision based on the evidence.

A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit in January 2020 affirmed the trial court’s decision to remove the juror.

The panel reasoned the juror wasn’t excused because of his religious beliefs, but because he was unable to follow instructions and decide the case on the facts and law presented.

The appeals court on Sept. 24 vacated the ruling and agreed to rehear the case en banc.

Brown won early release from prison in April 2020.

William Mallory Kent, of Jacksonville, Fla., Kirkland & Ellis LLP, First Liberty Institute, and CPLS, PA represent Brown.

Whittaker Law Firm represents Professor Luhrmann.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office filed the amicus brief on behalf of the states.

The case is United States v. Brown, 11th Cir., No. 17-15470, oral argument 2/23/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Hayes in Washington at PHayes@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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