Biblical References at Trial

The Court of Appeals of Georgia, Georgia’s intermediate appellate court, wrote about a topic I touched on two years ago. In an extremely short opinion, this Georgia court was faced with the question of how far lawyers can go in referencing biblical passages in the Bible or other religious texts.

Powell v. State

The Defendant in Powell v. State appealed his conviction for aggravated assault.The evidence presented at trial showed that Powell was present during a fight between the victim and Powell’s brother-in-law. Powell had gone to the victim’s house to confront the victim’s wife about alleged theft from his sister. After the altercation ended, Powell shot the victim in the shoulder.

Defendant only had two issues on appeal. The first was an evidentiary issue the court did not have to address because the defense attorney did not actually object to the question at trial.

The second issue on appeal was more interesting: to what extent can lawyers use the Bible and other religious texts or quotes from religious leaders at trial? Given what I guess was inconsistent statements made by the witness, the prosecutor said in closing:

[L]et me call your attention to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, four books of Bible, first four books in the New Testament. They all have a little minor inconsistency between each of them, here and there, and that’s because of perspective. But what do we call those four books of the Bible, ladies and gentlemen? We call them the gospel truth, ladies and gentlemen, the gospel truth.

Anthony Powell has appealed his conviction for aggravated assault, arguing that the trial court made two errors. Firstly, he claims that bad character evidence was improperly admitted, and secondly, he contends that the State made a “religious-based” argument in its closing statement. However, upon review, the appellate court has affirmed the original conviction.

Powell’s second argument is that the State made a “religious-based” argument in its closing statement. The prosecutor referred to biblical texts in an attempt to encourage the jurors to overlook inconsistencies in the evidence. Although the court acknowledged that references to religion in prosecutorial arguments should be avoided if they invite jurors to base their verdict on extraneous matters, the court found that the prosecutor’s references did not have this effect. Rather, the prosecutor used the biblical references to encourage the jurors to consider the evidence as a whole, and the court therefore finds no basis for reversal.

Reptile Theory Supports Using Biblical Passages

In Reptile, which is probably the leading sourcebook on trying plaintiffs’ personal injury cases, Biblical references are appropriate and should be used at trial. The premise is simple: most of us believe in God and view the world – to varying degrees – from the lens of faith. This is true for many of us who don’t wear sweater vests. Obviously true for people who wear their religion on their sleeve. (Not saying that is a bad thing, but you know what I mean.) So the rules of Scripture command authority as the “ultimate rules” for not only the faithful but the agnostic and even atheists. The latter idea – that atheists won’t be offended – is a big point for trial lawyers who don’t want to antagonize a jury in their final opportunity to plead their case.

The Georgia appellate court took what I thought was an easy way out, finding that the argument was not allowable because jurors were not asked to base their decision on religious principles. Which is how is it always going to be. The court said the prosecutor did not “exhort jurors to reach a verdict on religious grounds.” Well, no duh. No lawyer is going to be silly enough to say that you should give your verdict as a matter of religious faith. Any Biblical reference will be in the same margin this one was.

I wish the court had just said “Biblical references are fair game.” Because they are. If I can quote George Washington at trial, you can’t discriminate against Jesus because he is believed by many to be the Son of God. What a goofy cut off that would be.

11 Examples of Biblical References in Trials

  1. “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) – used to argue against theft or embezzlement charges.
  2. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) – cited in cases involving disputes between neighbors or community members.
  3. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) – used to argue against charges of tax evasion or to support a religious freedom defense.
  4. “Let the one without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7) – cited in cases involving moral judgment or punishment, such as sentencing decisions.
  5. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) – cited in cases involving conflict resolution or mediation.
  6. “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32) – used to support a defense or argue against false accusations.
  7. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) – used in cases involving harm or injury to others, such as assault or negligence.
  8. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35) – cited in cases involving hospitality or the treatment of refugees and immigrants.
  9. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) – cited in cases involving civil rights or social justice issues.
  10. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) – used to argue for a just outcome or to appeal to the jurors’ sense of fairness and compassion.
  11. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17) – used to support a defense or argue for rehabilitation or redemption.
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