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Monday, April 26, 2010

Religious Beliefs vs. Right to a Fair Trial: Which Wins Out?

Earlier this year, a criminal prosecutor in Iowa attended a lunchtime mass on Ash Wednesday. He did so during a break in the attempted murder jury trial he was prosecuting on behalf of the State.  Upon his return, the criminal defense attorney noticed the ashes on opposing counsel's forehead.

After considering the issue, the defense attorney made an objection to the trial going forward with ashes remaining on the prosecutor's forehead. He informed the judge that he was concerned the religious symbolism might inappropriately influence the members of the jury.  As a general rule, religion and religious symbols are not allowed to be referenced or displayed during jury trials, especially criminal ones.

The judge presiding over the case informed the prosecutor that he tended to agree with the defense lawyer, and that the wiser course of action might be to remove the ashes. Upon hearing the judge's position, the prosecutor did so.  He was later quoted as saying that he understood the reason for the objection and the judge's position, and that he wasn't offended by the situation.

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As a former prosecutor who also handled violent felonies, I would have to say that, from a legal perspective, the situation was dealt with appropriately. While a different prosecutor may have refused to remove the ashes out of principal or religious conviction, all reasonable prosecutors worry about some issue not relevant to the evidence allowing the defendant to successfully appeal a conviction.

Because the right to freedom is so fundamentally important, our legal system allows criminal defendants to almost always get the "benefit of the doubt."  For example, let us suppose that the trial continued with the ashes intact, and the result was a conviction by the jury. An appeal would almost certainly follow.  If the lawyers arguing the appeal on behalf of the criminal defendant were able to show that the religiously significant ashes on the prosecutor's forehead might have influenced even one member of the jury, the conviction could be vacated. At that point, the case would be sent back down to the trial court, to be started all over again as if the conviction never happened.

The prosecutor in this case explained that, "in an abundance of caution", he agreed to remove the ashes. Whatever our personal beliefs are, a prosecutor is sworn to uphold the law and to prosecute fairly - this includes fairness toward even the most malicious of defendants. While most lawyers have a duty to "zealously defend" their clients, a prosecutor has a higher, more strict duty, both from an ethical standpoint and a practical one.

I have not been able to discover what the outcome of the trial was.