Juror in Tax Crime Case Removed for Religious Belief

Published Categorized as Criminal Tax
Religious beleif, Austin Tax Attorney

What do you do if you are being tried for a criminal tax charge and the court removes one of the jurors for saying that you should be found not guilty?  What if the juror is removed by the court because the Holy Spirit told him that you were not guilty given the evidence presented?  If you are found guilty after he is removed, did you get a fair trial?  The court addresses this in United States v. Brown, No. 17-15470 (11th Cir. 2020).

Facts & Procedural History

The defendant was charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail and wire fraud, theft of government funds, engaging in a scheme to conceal material facts, engaging in a corrupt endeavor to obstruct the administration of the Internal Revenue laws, and filing a false tax return.

The criminal charges relate to a non-profit that raised funds to provide scholarships.  Apparently very little was paid out for scholarships.  Rather, the funds were used to pay the defendant’s personal expenses.

The jury heard the evidence and began deliberating the case.  At the start of the deliberations. one of the jurors told another juror that the Holy Spirit told him that the defendant was not guilty.  The other juror told the court of the statement.  The court then asked the juror about his statements and he confirmed that he did in fact say that the Holy Spirit told him that the defendant was not guilty.

The court replaced this juror with an alternate juror.  The defendant was found guilty on most of the counts, including the tax crimes.  The defendant appealed the judge’s decision to replace the juror.

Reliance on the Holy Spirit

The court correctly notes that a jury is to consider the evidence.  They are to weigh the evidence and make an impartial decision based on the evidence presented.

When a juror cannot be impartial or relies on something other than the evidence to make a decision, the courts are to remove the juror.

The court opinion describes the trial court’s decision as follows:

Though the court once again acknowledged that “a juror is fully entitled to his religious beliefs and may espouse them,” the court found that in this case, Juror 13’s “religious beliefs compelled him to disregard [the] instructions [he had received from the court on the law and how to evaluate the evidence] and instead follow direction from the `Holy Spirit’ to find the defendant `not guilty on all charges.'” Indeed, the court determined that Juror 13 “sincerely believed he had received instructions from an outside source before deliberations began about what his verdict should be . . . .” The court also specifically found that Juror 13’s “statement that he was following [the court’s] instructions did not convince [the court] that he was able to do so.” Juror 13’s seeming “unaware[ness] of the inconsistency” between following the court’s instructions and taking supposed direction from the Holy Spirit “reinforc[ed] [the court’s] belief that he would be unable to follow the Court’s instructions even if [ ] again directed [ ] to do so.”

The appeals court focused on the rules of criminal procedure.

Good Cause for Excusing a Juror

The rules of criminal procedure allow the court to remove a juror after deliberations have started.  It can only do so for “good cause.”  The term “good cause” refers to there being “no substantial possibility” that a juror “is basing her decision on the sufficiency of the evidence.”  Is reliance on the Holy Spirit good cause?

The defendant’s tax attorneys noted that the juror had said the Holy Spirit directed him to find the defendant not guilty based on the evidence presented.  The evidence presented part suggests that the defendant based his decision on the evidence.  The Holy Spirit part does not.

In the end, the appeals court left it to the trial court to judge the juror’s credibility.  It concluded that the trial court did not err in dismissing the juror.

The judge who penned the dissenting opinion, in this case, concluded that the appeals court erred.  The dissenting judge noted that the juror took an oath, to tell the truth, so help him, God.  The dissenting judge notes that complying with this oath and considering that the juror said he was relying on the evidence is all that is required.  To remove a juror in this situation, the dissenting judge concludes violates the right to a jury trial.

The majority and dissenting opinions raise a fundamental and serious issue.  As in this case, removing the juror no doubt changed the outcome in the case.  If the juror was allowed to continue, the defendant may have been found not guilty.

This type of issue plays out in just about every jury trial.  The only difference is that most jurors do not verbally express what drives their decision-making.  By disclosing the reasoning, the juror cast doubt on the whole process.  One is left wondering if the defendant should get a new trial.  If so, is that even fair?