Led by the Spirit: Integrating Social Science and Law to Better Understand the Impact of Jurors' Religious Beliefs

By Yelderman, Logan A.; Miller, Monica K. et al. | Faulkner Law Review, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Led by the Spirit: Integrating Social Science and Law to Better Understand the Impact of Jurors' Religious Beliefs


Yelderman, Logan A., Miller, Monica K., De Vault, Alicia, Faulkner Law Review


On November 26, 2012, Catholic priest Christopher Wenthe appealed his 2011 conviction for sexual misconduct. (1) On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals found that the evidence against Father Wenthe was excessively intertwined with religious matters, and suggested that the jurors were prone to base their judgments on religious standards rather than the state's legal standards. (2) The court further found that the jury was unable to render an impartial verdict due to their own religious beliefs and their beliefs about Wenthe's religion. (3) Thus, Wenthe was granted a new trial. (4) The court's decision suggests that when juries are guided by religious standards to judge a defendant, they are guided in a biased manner. (5)

One issue that arises is whether or not jurors knowingly act on their religious beliefs when deciding a verdict for a defendant. It is quite easy to assume that religious beliefs can influence jurors' decisions and likely do so without the jurors being explicitly aware. However, evidence that jurors acknowledge their religious beliefs during the decision-making process is not as clear. During the trial of Corrine Brown, a juror was removed during the deliberations and the jury was forced to restart because the juror told the judge, when asked if a higher power told him that Corrine Brown was not guilty, "No. I said the Holy Spirit told me that." (6) In this example, the juror clearly understands and acknowledges the influence of his personal religious beliefs on his decision about the guilt of the defendant. Yet, it is still unresolved whether or not religious beliefs actually influence jurors' decisions. The purpose of this review is to summarize the information put forth by both the legal and academic communities examining this topic and to also assess the extent to which religious beliefs might bias jurors' decisions and how such biases arise.

Attorneys and judges know that potential biases exist in jurors (7) and often times they attempt to address these biases in the voir dire process, a process in which judges or attorneys can exclude jurors from the juror pool based on potential impartiality for or against the defendant. (8) However, this typically requires that judges and attorneys ask the right questions in order to identify targeted biases. (9) Prospective jurors have been removed during the voir dire process (10) for religious reasons such as church membership or having a religious occupation. (11)

For example, Catholics were excluded from the jury in the Boston Marathon bombing trial due to their religious beliefs that the death penalty should not be imposed if non-lethal options are sufficient enough to protect the public from the aggressor. (12) Judges and attorneys might ask jurors directly about their religious beliefs; other times they will include religious questions on questionnaires that they give to members of the jury pool. (13) In both approaches, the goal is to identify juror bias related to religion. However, it is also challenged, as in Young v. Davis, that attorneys' removals of jurors for religious reasons are a pretext to other types of discrimination (e.g., race or gender). (14)

Though some attorneys use gut instincts, intuitions, and anecdotal observations to drive voir dire decisions, (15) it is critical to examine empirical support for assumptions regarding the relationships between religious beliefs, affiliation, and orientation and juror attitudes and decisions. In this review, Part I reviews research attempting to establish an association between religious affiliation and biased decisions. Part II reviews research attempting to establish a relationship between jurors' specific religious beliefs and biased decisions. Part III reviews research attempting to establish a relationship between jurors' specific religious orientations and biased decisions. Part IV examines ways in which a defendant's religion relates to jurors' decisions. …

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