Mixing scales of justice and songs of praise

Strange, strange, strange — like something out of a John Grisham novel.

That was my first reaction to an Associated Press news story about a Tennessee jury accused of singing, praying and reading Bible verses during deliberations:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The attorney for a man sentenced to death for the torture slayings of a young Knoxville couple says the jury spent the majority of its sentencing deliberations singing worship songs and reading Bible verses rather than discussing the case.

A motion filed on behalf of Lemaricus Davidson was recently unsealed along with pages of handwritten hymns and praise songs used by jurors during Davidson’s 2009 trial. His attorney says the impromptu worship service violated Davidson’s rights to a fair trial, due process and impartial jury.

The AP story is a rewrite of a longer report that first appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Both pieces impressed me as woefully short on specific details concerning the jury’s alleged infractions. For example, I want to know the specific songs they sang. Did they fancy “Rock of Ages?” Or did they lean more toward “Jesus Freak?” Similarly, I want to know the specific Bible verses they read. Concerning the Scriptures, the original Knoxville newspaper report notes:

The motion is based on a signed affidavit from a bailiff who served during Davidson’s 2009 trial. The affidavit included handwritten notes that said the praise service happened before deliberation, but does not specify a timeline or location of the service. It does show the jury members used copies of hymns while one member led the others in song while playing guitar. Another juror read a Bible verse — Psalm 90, verse 12 — according to the handwritten notes.

The King James Version of that verse says:

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

I’m assuming that the reported details are vague because the court records themselves are vague. Moreover, I’m assuming that the jurors either can’t, or won’t, talk about the case. In other words, the news organizations are reporting what they know, which isn’t a whole lot.

Hopefully, more facts will surface at a hearing on the defense motion set for next week.

Strange, strange, strange.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Julia

    Dumb Catholic here – what’s a “praise service”?

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Dumb blogger here — is that an editorial comment or a serious question? :-)

      If you’re really asking, I suppose a praise service would be a gathering or assembly devoted to praising God, typically including singing, praying and Scripture reading.

      • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

        I’m trying to see how you could construe Julia’s comment as “an editorial comment.” What could she be editorializing? What might she be doing other than “really asking” for an explanation of something unclear or unfamiliar? (This is also a serious question, by the way. I have no idea what buttons her question seems to have pushed, and would like to know.)

        Indeed, I would guess that there is a large portion of the American public who doesn’t know what a “praise service” is. Those of us who are familiar with them know that there are all sorts of praise services, with varying content and formats. In both cases, more details on what is alleged to have happened in the jury room – and why it might be a legal problem – are desirable in a news story.

        • Bobby Ross Jr.

          Julia is one of our faithful readers who always seems highly informed on religious intricacies. I thought maybe she was differentiating, in a tongue-in-cheek way, between a Catholic Mass and how evangelicals or other Christians might handle a worship assembly. More than likely, I was reading too much into her question. In any case, I certainly did not mean for my comment to have any negative connotation. Thanks for your response, Robert.

  • Jerry

    There’s a legal/religious ghost in this story. Specifically, whether or not praying during jury deliberations is legal or not. I found this very interesting (at least to me) analysis The Use of Religious Material by Juries in Capital Sentencing Deliberations: Coping with Religion in the Jury Room http://lawschool.udmercy.edu/udm/images/lawreview/Liu-1.Final.pdf

    The story should have included at least a nod in that direction.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good point and I absolutely agree, Jerry. An independent legal expert weighing in on jury religious activity would add a crucial element to the story.

  • Chris

    So if they sang classic rock songs would that have been better?

  • MJBubba

    This was a sensational case and the Knoxville News-Sentinel has run about 60 stories on it. Here is their summary: In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2007, Christopher Newsom and his girlfriend Channon Christian were carjacked and held captive in a house on Chipman Street in Knoxville. Both were raped, tortured and killed. Newsom’s body was discovered in the vicinity that afternoon burning alongside railroad tracks. Christian’s body was found stuffed in a trashcan inside the house a couple of days later. Five people were arrested in connection with the crime . [The sentences ranged from 18 years to death.]
    Though we are 400 miles away our local paper has run occasional articles that summarized the trial.

  • MJBubba

    It is not surprising to find that a Knoxville jury would be entirely Christians. If I were to find myself on a capital murder jury, and discovered during the trial that all my fellow jurors were Christians, then I would entirely favor a joint prayer for wisdom as a prelude to deliberations. I cannot imagine such a corporate prayer and praise worship to last more than half an hour. It sounds like some member of the jury pretty well turned that group into his little congregation. Serious trouble there, since it indicates a huge amount of influence from just one juror (I understand that the worship did have a leader).
    Journalistically, the revelation about the worshipping jury is breaking news and there is probably not very much to go on.

  • Julia

    Sorry. I realize that a Protestant “praise service” is different than my Catholic Mass. I was wondering how it is different from a regular Protestant service. Actually I’m just back from choir practice for what is billed as an Ecumencial Prayer Service at our Cathedral which will have many religious leaders of all kinds of denominations from within our diocesan limits. It will not be a Mass – just readings, singing and a lot of speakers.

    So – is a “praise service” different from a “prayer service”? I’m familiar with a “praise band”, but not with a service by that name. I assumed all services include music and praise of God?

  • Judy Harrow

    I have two problems with holding a religious service during jury deliberations:
    1. It keeps the accused waiting for their verdict longer than is necessary, and that seems needlessly cruel.
    2. It would make any jurors who are not of the dominant religion feel uncomfortable, and perhaps inhibit them from stating their opinions when the jury finally gets to deliberating.
    In addition, MJ Bubba’s point that whoever led the service might gain disproportionate influence in the deliberations is a very serious concern.

    Corporate jury prayer is a very different matter from an individual juror quietly praying for wisdom, soething which cannot and certainly should not, be prevented. It presents a severe risk that the outcome may be distorted, and so it is inappropriate.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Judy,

      GetReligion is concerned about the journalistic questions and media issues. Did you mean to address those areas?

  • northcoast

    My experience has involved prayer and praise services at Episcopal churches in Washington, Pennsylvania, California, and Alabama in past decades. (Maybe that should be “prayer and praise” services.) One church I attended incorporated charismatic praise in a Sunday morning service with the eucharist. With allowances for local and denominational preferences I would expect a praise service to involve praise music and charismatic worship. I would not expect these at a prayer service.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks, northcoast.

      From a journalistic perspective, I think the lesson is pretty simple: Always remember the adage that it’s better to show than tell. Don’t tell me a “praise service” or a “prayer service” occurred. Give me specific details on what occurred. Again, I suspect that the available information was limited in this case and that the media organizations had to report just the little that they knew.

  • Abraxas

    The real issue and the real scandal is that this horrific torture, rape and murder was perpetrated by a group of Blacks on a young White couple and it was repressed by the national media. Had the races been reversed, these poor young Whites would be as famous as Tray-von. That’s the issue.

  • Julia

    Here’s the answer to my question – How to Have a Praise Service.

    http://www.ehow.com/how_8476092_praise-service-church.html

  • northcoast

    The trial that is the subject of this appeal could easily be part of the plot of a Grisham novel. The atrocities inflicted on the crime victims were comparable to the Cheshire, Conn. Petit family murders in the same year (which evidently received far more media coverage). The Judge’s misconduct off the bench apparently led to appeals for a retrial. Now the reported praise service is cited as further reason for the appeal, and of course this happened in Tennessee.

    I could well understand how religious jury members would agree to take time for prayer before their deliberations, but the singing after hearing the testimony in that trial is just beyond my understanding. Like Mr. Ross I’d like to know more about what actually happened in that jury room.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Were they all Wednesday church service people, and it was a Wednesday? (Because I assume they wouldn’t have been deliberating on a Saturday or Sunday.)