Culture Wars in the Eleventh Circuit? En Banc Court Votes to Vacate Conviction Because Christian Juror Who “Trusted the Holy Ghost” Was Erroneously Dismissed from Trial

In United States v. Brown, No. 17-15470 (11th Cir. May 6, 2021) (en banc), a strict partisan split yields a 7-4 decision to vacate the fraud conviction of a former U.S. Representative because the judge removed a juror during deliberations who said that “A Higher Being told me [the defendant] was Not Guilty on all charges” and that he “trusted the Holy Ghost.” All seven judges voting to vacate were Republican appointees; all four voting to affirm were Democratic appointees. (Judge Jill Pryor was recused.)

Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) was charged with “conspir[ing] to defraud donors of more than $800,000 in contributions to a charitable organization that purported to provide scholarships to poor students” and “misus[ing] her position as a member of the United States House of Representatives in furtherance of the conspiracy.” During deliberations, Juror No. 8 “called the courtroom deputy to express concerns that another juror” – Juror No. 13 – “was talking about ‘higher beings.’”

Juror No. 8 later elaborated in a letter to the court: “With all due respect, I’m a little concerned about a statement made by Juror #13 when we began deliberation. He said ‘A Higher Being told me Corrine Brown was Not Guilty on all charges’. He later went on to say he ‘trusted the Holy Ghost’. We all asked that he base his verdict on the evidence provided, the testimony of the witnesses and the laws of the United States court. Other members of the Jury share my concern.”

Nevertheless, when called into the courtroom and quizzed by the judge, Juror No. 8 could not say that Juror No. 13 was not deliberating. The judge then called Juror No. 13 in for examination. The juror testified that he was deliberating in good faith, “that he had prayed for and received divine guidance” during the trial, and that the Holy Spirit told the juror that the defendant was not guilty.

The judge ultimately dismissed Juror No. 13. The judge found the juror “sincere and earnest” and that the juror was “likely believed that he was trying to follow[] the Court’s instructions” to base decisions on the facts and the law. Nevertheless, because Juror No. 13 told fellow jurors that the Holy Spirit declared Brown innocent, the juror “inject[ed] religious beliefs that are inconsistent with the instructions of the court.” An alternate was chosen to replace Juror No. 13 and “the reconstituted jury reached a verdict. It found Brown guilty of 18 counts and not guilty of four counts.”

While the original panel assigned to review the case affirmed the conviction, the appeal was ordered to be reheard en banc. The full court reverses, with Chief Judge Pryor writing for the majority.

After rehearsing the importance of the defendant’s right to a unanimous jury, the majority observes that a reviewing court does not “defer[] to the dismissal of a deliberating juror—an alleged constitutional error. On this review, we examine the record to ensure that ‘no substantial possibility’ existed that the dismissed juror was rendering proper jury service . . . instead of looking to confirm that at least a substantial possibility existed that the juror was committing misconduct.”

The majority holds that the district court erred by putting excessive weight on Juror No. 13’s expression of religious conviction. “To the district judge, Juror No. 13’s religious statements were conclusive proof that he was not ‘bas[ing his] decision only on the law and the facts that were adduced at trial’ or ‘able to deliberate’ properly. That finding is not a credibility determination for which the district judge has a ‘superior vantage point’ and to which we owe special deference.” Under this standard of review, “[w]e ask whether Juror No. 13’s religious statements amounted to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he could not render a verdict based solely on the evidence and the law, thereby disqualifying him, despite substantial evidence that he was fulfilling the duty he had sworn to render. They did not.” The majority notes, indeed, that the juror explicated “a direct and specific connection between his self-understood religious duty and his—correctly described—legal duty as a juror to base his decision on the evidence.”

The majority specifically decodes Juror No. 13’s citation of the Holy Spirit as American religious vernacular. “People talk about religion in different ways . . . . And for many contemporary Americans, to call prayer a conversation with God is more than a metaphor . . . . Members of some religious groups are more likely than others to report two[1]way communication with God, underscoring that different people are used to thinking and talking about their prayer life in different ways—and that courts may not conclude that their vernacular alone disqualifies them from jury service.” By way of comparison, “Juror No. 13’s vernacular that the Holy Spirit “told” him Brown was ‘not guilty on all charges’ was no more disqualifying by itself than a secular juror’s statement that his conscience or gut ‘told’ him the same.”

Concurring, Judge Newsom (with Judge Grant) takes pains to note that “this is not a case about the single statement, ‘[T]he Holy Spirit told me . . . that Corrine Brown was not guilty on all charges’—it’s a case about the context in which that statement was made and the entire record before us.” [Ed. note: If the appeal were truly that fact-bound, then en banc review was most likely improvident under Fed. R. App. P. 35(a), presenting neither an intra-circuit conflict nor “a question of exceptional importance.” At best, on this view, the appeal was en banc-ed purely for error-correction, an arguable abuse of such review.]

Also concurring, Judge Brasher (with Judge Branch) gets to the heart of the matter: that the district court judge improperly examined the juror’s religious convictions. “[I]n my view, this record should not have been created. There was no cause for Juror 13 to testify at an evidentiary hearing about his religious convictions, his view of the evidence, or his understanding of a juror’s role. The trial judge should not have inquired into Juror 13’s thoughts in the first place.” While allowing that “an investigation into a juror’s actions may be appropriate . . . . an investigation into a juror’s thoughts is not. And that is what happened in this case.”

The principal dissent, by Judge Wilson (for all four dissenters), concludes that the majority does not properly defer to the trial judge’s findings, out of keeping with the circuit’s standing authority. “The decision to remove Juror No. 13 was a tough call, and one the district court did not take lightly. But from the district court’s superior vantage point, it was necessary to ensure that a verdict was rendered based on the law and evidence—a principle that is foundational to our system of justice.” The dissent charges the majority with simply reweighing the record rather than applying appropriate clear-error review to the district court’s findings.

The dissent disputes Judge Brasher’s conclusion that a district court may never examine religious convictions. “[W]hen complaints arise during deliberations, creating a possibility that a decision is being made on impermissible grounds, district courts cannot turn a blind eye . . . . [T]he district court conducted a narrow inquiry that gathered enough information to determine whether there was a substantial possibility that Juror No. 13 was following the court’s instructions. This careful approach was no abuse of discretion; it was exactly what we should ask of district courts when a complaint of juror misconduct arises.”

Finally, Judge Rosenbaum’s dissent (for three judges) charges that the majority opinion casts immunity over any religiously-motivated behavior in jury deliberations: “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.”

In a footnote, the dissent puts an even finer point on his difference with the majority: “[A]t oral argument, Judge Jordan asked Brown’s counsel whether the rule the Majority Opinion adopts today would also prevent the district judge from dismissing a juror who, on a record like this one, says that Satan told him the defendant is guilty on all charges and he trusts Satan—even if the judge finds after investigation that the juror is not capable of basing his guilty verdict on the evidence but instead will base it on what he thinks is a Satanic revelation. Brown’s counsel conceded the rule would preclude the juror’s dismissal. And not a single judge of this Court disagrees; the same rule must govern whether the juror says he’s told by the Holy Spirit or by Satan and whether he says he’s told the defendant is not guilty or guilty on all charges.”

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