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. Parts V and VI address the current knowledge and review implications for researchers and practitioners.
Much research investigates relationships between religious affiliations, attitudes toward legal issues, and punitiveness toward criminals. (16) Religious affiliation is usually defined as the overarching set of religious beliefs and rituals in which people categorize themselves. (17) This would include Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism, as well as denominations or traditions within religions, such as Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Lutheranism. (18)
Attorney Clarence Darrow once suggested that prosecuting attorneys should seek Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians for jurors because they are more likely to render convictions in criminal cases. (19) Although Darrow's suggestions are not empirically based, they offer insight into the relationship between jurors' religion and their decision-making. A former prosecutor, John Quatman, openly admitted that he regularly excluded Jews from serving as jurors because of their unwillingness to give the death penalty. (20) Religious affiliations have gained attention from both attorneys and researchers because many affiliations contain teachings that may guide individuals' decision-making. (21) Darrow's and Quatman's claims about religious individuals were not supported by any concrete evidence beyond observation and personal experience, but they represent lay theories used to guide challenges during voir dire. (22) Thus, it is critical that social scientific research related to such claims be examined in order to determine its congruency with attorneys' assumptions.
In general, the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches oppose the death penalty, but Southern Baptists and the Lutheran Church support it. (23) According to these identified positions on the death penalty alone, Darrow's claims would be 66.66% accurate. (24) Darrow and Quatman make blanket statements and leave no room for variation within denominations and traditions. Particularly, differences between races regarding civil issues occur within religious denominations. (25) For example, white mainline Protestants and Catholics share similar favorable attitudes toward gay marriage, but white evangelical Protestants starkly oppose it; moreover, black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics differ in respect to their attitudes toward gay marriage and abortion. (26) To make assumptions on affiliation alone is to err. Other factors play significant roles in shaping attitudes, and ultimately decisions, among jurors.
One issue that has received quite a bit of attention is whether or not Batson v. Kentucky (27) extends to religious groups and the question of whether or not this should be the case. (28) To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled clearly on this issue, and religious groups are not currently a protected class like race (29) and gender. (30) In one example from California, People v. Martin, a defendant appealed a prosecuting attorney's use of a peremptory challenge based solely on the fact that the venireperson was a Jehovah's Witness and, thus, unable to judge others. (31) The California Court of Appeal held that this does not violate the Equal Protection Clause because the challenge is based not on race or gender but on religious beliefs, which have noticeable influence on an individual's perception of right and wrong in many criminal and civil cases. (32)
This ruling was important for two reasons. First, it reiterated the findings in Batson and J.E.B that religion was not equivalent to race and gender as a cognizable group. (33) Second, it legitimized the idea that religious beliefs likely influence jurors' decisions (as in are related to specific biases), and in seemingly obvious ways. (34) The peremptory strike used in People v. Martin was further supported in the first trial of Kevon Neal when a juror, who had already been questioned in voir dire and was retained for the jury, recused herself because her religious convictions as a Jehovah's Witness were too strong to be impartial. (35) Thus, not only do judges claim that jurors' religion can influence their decisions, but jurors, themselves, confirm this.
Affiliation and Attitudes Related to the Death Penalty and Criminal Cases
Religious affiliation has been of particular interest in death penalty cases. Death sentencing trials require a death qualification process in which potential jurors are excluded if their attitudes for or against the death penalty would interfere with their duties to be impartial. (36) In the Boston Marathon bombing case, venirepersons were removed because of their Catholic beliefs, (37) yet it is unknown if this was specific to the case or if this is a systematic exclusionary trend. In the death qualification process, Jews, atheists, and agnostics were disqualified more often, but Catholics and Protestants were retained more often, (38) which is quite interesting considering the contrast in death penalty support among Catholics and Protestants. (39) However, more recent research suggests that Catholics were more likely to be excluded during the death qualification process. (40) This discrepancy might be the result of the Catholic Church's shift in attitudes toward the death penalty--from support to opposition. (41) Nonetheless, venire persons' religious affiliations continue to be reasons for exclusion. (42) Moreover, different death qualification standards (43) used across jurisdictions might also impact who is and who is not excluded; (44) and this likely extends to religious-based challenges.
When asked about the death penalty, Christian affiliations, compared to non-Christian affiliations, were more supportive of the death penalty--although no differences were found within traditions among Christian affiliates. (45) Also, according to research, being Protestant (46) or Christian fundamentalist (47) was positively related to death penalty support. Death penalty support varied among Protestant...