If the right to a jury trial means anything, it means a right to a verdict based on the evidence. Indeed, the entirety of our procedural mechanisms is geared to achieve this result: we have trials so we can ensure all jurors consider the same universe of evidence; we have an entire body of rules—the Federal Rules of Evidence—devoted to controlling the information on which jurors can rely in reaching their decision; and we expressly instruct the jurors that they must determine their verdict based on the evidence. Then, if a defendant loses at trial, on appeal, we review the record to be certain that sufficient evidence supports the verdict.
We do these things to try to ensure that only those proven guilty based on admissible evidence will be convicted and to try to prevent convictions that arise from prejudice or even ostensibly noble reasons—such as a juror’s belief that God has told him to convict, irrespective of the evidence. The consistent application of these practices underpins the public’s faith in the jury system and delivers due process of law, an ideal in which our system of justice is grounded.
So we must steadfastly insist that a deliberating juror who is incapable of reaching a verdict based on the evidence be dismissed, regardless of whether that juror intends to convict or acquit a defendant. If we do not, we guarantee that, under at least some circumstances, a juror who is unable to arrive at a verdict rooted in the evidence will nonetheless be allowed to convict a defendant. That is unacceptable.
Here, the district court became aware that during deliberations, Juror 13 in Defendant-Appellant Corrine Brown’s trial made remarks suggesting he might not base his verdict on the evidence adduced at trial. Specifically, Juror 13 informed the other jurors at the outset of deliberations that “[t]he Holy Spirit told [him]” that Brown was not guilty on all counts.
The district court questioned Juror 13 for a while, in the presence of the parties, to ascertain whether Juror 13 meant that he had prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance and wisdom in reaching a verdict based on the evidence—which would not run afoul of the court’s instructions to return a verdict based on the evidence—or whether he meant instead that he believed the Holy Spirit had “told” him to return a certain verdict irrespective of what the evidence showed—which would violate the court’s instructions. Based on Juror 13’s responses and demeanor, the district court concluded that Juror 13 was not capable of rendering a verdict rooted in the evidence presented at trial but that, despite his best intentions, Juror 13 would instead arrive at a verdict based on his perceived divine revelation, uninformed by the actual evidence. For this reason, the district court dismissed Juror 13 from the jury.
We find no clear error in the district court’s factual findings. And for that reason, the district court certainly did not abuse its discretion in dismissing Juror 13 from the jury. To hold otherwise would undermine our system of justice by allowing jurors to return verdicts based not on the evidence or law, but instead on a juror’s perceived divine revelation, irrespective of the evidence. Though here, the juror’s perceived divine revelation might have worked in the criminal defendant’s favor had the district court not learned of it mid-deliberations, a contrary holding would allow criminal defendants to be convicted based on a divine revelation divorced from the evidence, rather than the evidence presented at trial—a troubling result, to say the least. And regardless of whether it works in favor of or against the defendant, a rule that would allow a juror to base his verdict on something other than the evidence would be antithetical to the rule of law and is contradicted by decades of precedent.
Brown also raises a challenge to the forfeiture order the district court entered. We find no error there, either. We therefore affirm Brown’s convictions.
Judge William Pryor dissents and says the conviction should be reversed:
Every juror who was empaneled in Corrine Brown’s criminal trial swore this oath. One of them was dismissed because he apparently meant it. By approving his dismissal, the majority erodes the “tough legal standard” governing the removal of deliberating jurors and imperils the sanctity of the right to trial by jury. United States v. Abbell, 271 F.3d 1286, 1302 (11th Cir. 2001) (requiring that juror misconduct be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” before dismissing a deliberating juror). And it does so in an especially troubling manner: after admitting that “one reasonable construction” of the record supports the view that this juror rendered proper service, it holds that the district court’s adverse reaction to the way this juror talked about God nevertheless proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the juror engaged in misconduct. Majority Op. at 29–31 (emphasis added).
Do each of you solemnly swear that you will well and truly try the case now before this court and render a true verdict, according to the law, evidence, and instructions of this court, so help you God?
Over an hour and a half on the third day of jury deliberations, the district court investigated a concern about a juror who, on the first day, reportedly twice used religious language to express his position. During that hour and a half, the suspect juror repeatedly affirmed that he was basing his decision on the evidence. He even explained that he considered it his religious duty to do so. The district court thought he meant what he was saying; in the district court’s words, the suspect juror was “very earnest” and “very sincere.” The other juror who had raised the concern agreed that the suspect juror was deliberating, and she implied that he had not said anything worrisome during the second day of deliberations. Indeed, she never even accused him of misconduct.
But none of these encouraging signs mattered once the suspect juror confirmed that, near the start of deliberations, he had said something to the effect of “the Holy Spirit told me that Corrine Brown was not guilty on all charges.” With next to no context—and no other evidence of misconduct—the district court deemed this statement “an expression that’s a bridge too far, consistent with jury service as we know it,” and conclusive proof that the juror was “using external forces to bring to bear on his decision-making in a way . . . inconsistent with his jury service and his oath.”
To be sure, the risk of juror misconduct in deliberations is one of the most sensitive problems that can arise in a criminal trial, and the district court took its responsibilities seriously. Alas, to err is human, to forgive divine, but forgiveness is not a comfort afforded to a court of appeals. And the district court’s error in this appeal is clear. If this devout juror’s religious language alone proved his misconduct “beyond reasonable doubt,” Abbell, 271 F.3d at 1302, then the phrase “reasonable doubt” has changed its meaning.
The majority opinion suffers from several flaws. Foremost, it fails to adhere to our precedents governing the dismissal of a juror. Our precedents impose a “tough” standard of proof—indeed, the highest standard of proof known to law, “beyond a reasonable doubt”—before a district court can purge a deliberating juror. After paying lip service to this standard, the majority ordains district courts with broad discretion to dismiss any juror who confesses receiving guidance from God. But the majority fails to view that discretion through the lens of the tough standard imposed by our precedents, and so it fails to appreciate why the limited record below does not satisfy our standard. The majority then compounds these errors by misconstruing the import of the juror’s religious statements—which were spoken in the vernacular of a substantial segment of our citizenry—and by failing to understand why these statements were not conclusively disqualifying. The upshot of these errors is that the majority’s decision makes it far more difficult for the citizens of our Circuit to be judged by juries that represent a cross-section of their communities. Indeed, it even provides discriminating lawyers with a tool to target and eliminate certain demographics from jury service. For example, African American and evangelical Christians are more likely than others to believe that God speaks to them, and the majority’s decision now requires that these eligible jurors be stricken for cause if a discriminating lawyer elicits during voir dire that God communicates with them. For these reasons, I must dissent.
For what it's worth, I think both opinions get it wrong. I think an acquittal can be based on anything, including one's conscience. Convictions, on the other hand, cannot be based on anything except the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. So if God tells a juror to acquit, fine. It would be disqualifying, however, for a juror to convict based on some intuition and not the evidence. Jury nullification is permissible to acquit, but not to convict.