Perfect storm in the jury box

perfect storm big waveEvery now and then, a reporter who doesn’t cover the religion beat shows up to cover a big news story and gets caught up in a situation that is simply awash in religious stuff. I cannot imagine how that must feel, but it has to be a little scary.

So let’s pause for a second and give a GetReligion cheer for reporter Jerry Markon of the Washington Post, who, last week, covered the early jury-selection process for Zacarias Moussaoui, who last spring pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Obviously, anything related to Sept. 11 is going to have some religious complications. But I am sure Markon didn’t expect to get caught up in kind of a religion-ghost perfect storm (to mix metaphors freely). I meant to bring this up last week, but other stories kept moving up in the queue.

What did Markon do? He didn’t call a ghost a ghost. He just let the characters in this drama speak for themselves and kept the language plain.

So where do we begin? How about the lead.

A teacher told a federal judge yesterday that she believes members of al Qaeda are brainwashed. A government contractor said she feels a special connection with victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because her father died in a plane crash. A mortgage lender consulted a priest about whether he could, in good conscience, vote to put Zacarias Moussaoui to death.

The surprise was the decision by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to allow Moussaoui to attend. The defendant was quiet and under control, other than telling the judge that he needed to leave at 12:30 p.m. to pray.

On one level, as usual, the goal of the jury-selection process was to find jurors who had not prejudged the defendant, which is a real challenge in northern Virginia. Early on, the judge had to rule that he couldn’t disqualify people simply because they knew someone who worked at the nearby Pentagon on Sept. 11.

But here is the question raised by Markon’s simple story and almost totally ignored by the rest of the coverage: Does the judge keep strong religious believers off the jury because their faith might clash with the beliefs of the fervent believer they are being asked to judge? Should the judge let a devout Muslim on this jury? Does the judge exclude such a believer? How about a Catholic? A Baptist?

I hope whoever ends up covering this storm gets to ask these kinds of questions.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    It’s no so much whether a judge would allow such a person on a jury, but more whether such a person could be struck by the attorneys in a Batson-like challenge. Some courts say religion is a legitimate reason–unlike race and sex–to strike a juror “for cause,” but the Fourth Circuit (which includes Virginia) would likely not agree and argue religion isn’t a reason for a peremptory challenge.

    If one side–likely the Prosecution here–wanted to challenge the other side’s attempt to strike a religious juror, the court would have a “Batson” hearing to determine whether religion was the reason for the strike.

    Another interesting question would be whether a devout Catholic or Quaker, who was opposed to the death penalty based on religious grounds, could be struck from the jury panel.

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    This is why many Americans want military trials and summary executions of enemy combatants.

  • Michael

    “Many”? I’m not sure “many” Americans want us to become like Chile or Saudi Arabia when it comes to judicial due process of alleged enemy combatants.

  • Kizmet

    Will the trial also be interrupted daily for the defendant’s prayers?

  • http://www.blackphi.co.uk/webitorial.php Phil Blackburn

    I can’t see anything in Markon’s story that mentions keeping people off the jury because of religious affliation. Indeed, it seems a very strange idea to me.

    Is the suggestion that most devout US Muslims are in favour of mass murder? Or that most devout US Baptists and Roman Catholics are significantly more prejudiced against Muslims? If a potential juror can be shown to have pro-Al Qaeda sympathies or to be a known racist that is one thing, but to imply that because someone has a religious faith they are less interested in justice seems odd.

    The exceptions in this case, as noted above, could be potential jurors who oppose the death penalty in principle (religious or otherwise), who might feel bound to vote one way irrespective of the evidence.


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