When jurors are selected for trial in Federa
l court, they are asked to adopt the phrase, “so help me God.” What happens when they take that oath too seriously?
At the beginning of jury deliberations in a federal fraud case involving former U.S. Congresswoman Corrine Brown, Juror 13 told the other jurors that “[t]he Holy Spirit told [him] that the defendant was not guilty. The trial court found out and questioned Juror 13 on whether this was based on evidence in the case or whether he would find the defendant “not guilty” regardless of the evidence. After the questioning, the court concluded that the juror intended to base the decision solely on the “perceived divine revelation” and dismissed the juror.
The defendant in the case appealed the court’s decision and argued that the juror should have been allowed to remain on the panel, but the 11th Circuit upheld the lower court in a 116-page ruling issued January 9, 2020. “To hold otherwise would undermine our system of justice by allowing jurors to return verdicts based on the evidence or law, but instead on a juror’s perceived divine revelation, irrespective of the evidence.” The court noted that even though the juror’s perception of divine revelation worked in the criminal defendant’s favor in this case, “a contrary holding would allow criminal defendants to be convicted based on a divine revelation divorced from the evidence.” (Emphasis in original.)
During jury deliberations, another juror, Juror 8, had called the courtroom deputy and reported that several other jurors had concerns about Juror 13. The deputy said the matter to the district judge. The judge called the lawyers in for a meeting, and the parties were not sure whether it was “just part of the natural frustration or dialogue or tensions that go on in any jury deliberation.” Since it did seem to be a fairly serious issue, the parties agreed that the court should interview Juror 8 to find out what was going on. The juror said that Juror 13 had indicated he would be relying on his sense of what the “Holy Spirit” had communicated rather than the case evidence.
The Court then called Juror 13 to the courtroom for questioning outside the hearing of the rest of the jurors. The entirety of the transcribed conversation between Juror 13 and the court begins on page 11 of the decision.
After the discussion, in which Juror 13 admitted that his decision was based on divine revelation, the prosecutors asked for the juror to be dismissed. The attorney for the defendant disagreed, stating that Juror 13 was a person of faith and that “something he believed beforehand had been reaffirmed by the evidence he saw.”
The court dismissed Juror 13 and allowed one of the alternate jurors to take his place. After the jury found the defendant guilty on four counts, the defendant moved for a new trial claiming that Juror 13 should not have been dismissed.
“So Help Me God” and Prayer During Jury Deliberations
The 11th Circuit upheld the decision with Judge William Pryor dissenting. Judge Pryor argued in a 62-page dissent that Juror 13 had not actually been influenced by an “external force” that he believed to be the Holy Spirit, but had instead described an “internal mental event, not an external instruction.” The dissenting judge wrote that the dismissal of Juror 13 based on the statement of divine guidance was not alone enough to justify dismissal. The dissent provides a primer on the topic of prayer during jury deliberations.
Judge Pryor notes that although courts have “rightly rejected arguments that it is inherently improper for jurors in a criminal trial to turn to prayer as part of their deliberations,” jurors may pray for guidance alone.” (State v. Williams, 832 N.E.2d 783, 790 (Ohio Ct. App. 2005) and State v. Young, 710 N.W. 2nd 272, 283 (Minn. 2006). Emphasis added.
The dissent continues:
Provided that they follow the court’s instructions, jurors may pray for guidance alone, see State v. Young, 710 N.W.2d 272, 283 (Minn. 2006); in small groups, see State v. Elliott, 628 S.E.2d 735, 747–48 (N.C. 2006); or as a body, see Commonwealth v. Tedford, 960 A.2d 1, 38–40 (Pa. 2008). They may pray for God’s guidance at the outset of deliberations, see State v. Setzer, 36 P.3d 829, 832 (Idaho Ct. App. 2001); they may seek it again day by day as deliberations continue, see State v. Graham, 422 So. 2d 123, 135–36 (La. 1982); and they may ask God to confirm their consciences once they have reached a decision, see Smith v. State, 877 So. 2d 369, 383 (Miss. 2004).
Judge Pryor argues:
For a juror to receive and rely on divine guidance is not misconduct. When a conscientious juror asks God in prayer to assist her and believes that she has received his assistance, she has not taken instructions from an outside source. She has not performed the supernatural equivalent of a Google search. She has not made the Omniscient her own private eye to dig up additional evidence for or against the defendant. All she has done is to seek clarity of mind, insight, and discernment from that interior place where her conscious mind makes contact with what she believes is the divine. As long as the object of her prayers is an honest attempt to discern the facts from the evidence and to apply the law to those facts, the prayerful meditations of such a juror are no less valid a form of deliberation than any other.
On the flip side, of course, a juror who refuses or is unable to apply the law to the evidence for a spiritual reason is no less subject to dismissal than a juror who does the same thing for a secular reason. When it is apparent beyond a reasonable doubt that “‘religious inspiration’ prevent[s] [a] juror from considering the evidence at all,” United States v. Salvador, 740 F.2d 752, 755 (9th Cir. 1984), that juror may be dismissed, just like a juror who refuses to deliberate for any other reason.
Perhaps most directly, Judge Pryor observes that:
Indeed, it would be ironic to fault Juror No. 13 for meaningfully relying on God’s guidance when the district court itself invoked the assistance of God. Every juror in Brown’s trial swore to faithfully fulfill their duties using an oath that ended with “so help you God.” In framing the oath this way, the court adhered to an ancient tradition of ensuring honesty by invoking supernatural sanction on those who swear a false oath. See Thomas R. White, Oaths in Judicial Proceedings and Their Effect Upon the Competency of Witnesses, 51 Am. L. Reg. 373, 374–76 & n.3 (1903); see also 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries *369 (stating that oaths are a well-established practice that strengthened the social obligation of truth “by uniting it with that of religion”). Indeed, the phrase “[so] help me God” invokes “God’s vengeance” when a juror does not “fulfill [his] engagement to speak the truth, or perform the specific duty.” James E. Tyler, Oaths; Their Origin, Nature, and History 57 (London, John W. Parker 1884); accord White, Oaths in Judicial Case Proceedings, supra, at 380 n.10 (stating that “So help me God” is shorthand for “So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Pierce v. Commonwealth, 408 S.W.2d 187, 188 (Ky. 1966) (observing that “the use of the words ‘So help me God’ in the juror’s oath” means that “the juror will, as God is his witness, decide the issues according to the evidence”). And “so help me God” remains a staple of jury oaths in federal courts today. See Fed. Judicial Ctr., Benchbook for U.S. District Judges § 7.08, at 269 (6th ed. 2013); see also 28 U.S.C. § 453 (requiring justices and judges to take an oath of office that includes “So help me God”). If courts can invoke God’s damnation to ensure faithful juries, then surely individual jurors can rely on divine aid to avoid that fate.
Does “So Help Me God” Reflect an Actual Belief?
This case can easily be dismissed as a fringe example involving somebody who possibly even has mental health issues or at the least the inability to navigate the idealistically sterile world of a criminal trial where all they are supposed to know about the law and the events in question is presented at the time of trial. Jurors are expected to only see the information that is in front of them, and it’s part of the reason many lawyers cringe at the scene in the 1957 film 12 Angry Men where Henry Fonda’s character, Juror 5, goes out and purchases a knife similar to the murder weapon and discusses it with the other jurors. That certainly would have been grounds for a mistrial, particularly if court staff discovered it laying on the table in the jury room after the decision had been rendered.
But is it fair to dismiss the compulsory phrase “so help me God” as merely symbolic or is it akin to a compulsory prayer or request for divine revelation? Can a court require it and then dismiss a juror who takes it seriously? The meaning of the phrase “so help me God,” at least as originally intended, was to inspire fear of God’s vengeance if a juror did not honestly and faithfully perform his or her duty. And that includes relying on any help that the juror thinks God may have granted.
Whether a juror’s invocation of divine involvement is a matter of mental health, imagination, or actual divine intervention may depend on your view of God and your belief in the sincerity of the juror. Normally is expected that jurors will use their existing mental facilities to the best of their ability. But when courts routinely ask all jurors, regardless of faith or lack thereof, to say “so help me God,” it makes sense that at least some would actually ask for God’s help and then expect an answer, external or internal – and that answer can help the prosecution or defense.
Either “so help me God” means something tangible in the here and now, or it is a meaningless symbol intended to harken back to another time and place. When some people of faith who believe that “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” also take their oath seriously it can create a sense of cognitive dissonance as they try to suppress their internal religious beliefs and impressions while simultaneously under the censure of the oath that they have taken. It is the job of jurors to interpret and uphold the law based on the facts that they are presented at trial and it may be time to reevaluate whether such an oath is really necessary.
For Christians seeking to navigate this subject, which reaches between places of civic religious symbolism and actual faith, there is wisdom in turning to the words of Jesus. Matthew 5:33-37 (NIV) states, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Case Name and Link: United States v. Brown, (11th Cir., Jan. 9, 2020), http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201715470.pdf