From the Archives: The Reynolds Jury Charge

The trial court in Reynolds v. United States gave the following jury charge, which the Supreme Court later found was proper and not inflammatory.

I think it not improper, in the discharge of your duties in this case, that you should consider what are to be the consequences to the innocent victims of this delusion. As this contest goes on, they multiply, and there are pure-minded women and there are innocent children, innocent in a sense even beyond the degree of the innocence of childhood itself. These are to be the sufferers; and as jurors fail to do their duty, and as these cases come up in the Territory of Utah, just so do these victims multiply and spread themselves over the land.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of the ideas and prejudices of the time — Note that polygamy (or is it the church itself?) is referred to as “this delusion.” The jury, not surprisingly, convicted, leading to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the First Amendment did not protect Mormon polygamy.

(I should note that Reynolds is a relatively short and readable opinion (among Supreme Court opinions, that is), and even more so with a few quick pointers I’ll give here. The first several pages are dedicated to certain procedural challenges to Reynolds’ conviction which are of essentially no interest now, so non-legal readers will probably want to skip these evidentiary challenges and jury composition challenges, and go to sections 5 and 6 (they’re clearly labeled), which deal with the religion issues. It is fascinating reading.)

5 comments for “From the Archives: The Reynolds Jury Charge

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    November 5, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    As I understand it, the same assumption of female innocence was what led to the construction of an apartment building as a haven for polygamous wives whose husbands had been imprisoned. I also understand that hardly any woman asked to live there.

    The viewpoint is consistent with the concept popular in the literature of the time that Mormon elders were like vampires in their ability to mesmerize young women and overcome their will to resist.

  2. Frank McIntyre
    November 6, 2009 at 10:16 am

    “Mormon elders were like vampires in their ability to mesmerize young women and overcome their will to resist.”

    That’s totally me.

  3. November 6, 2009 at 11:36 am

    As shown by Frank’s wedding announcement photo.

  4. November 7, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Can someone explain why the court in section 5 seemed to ignore the “free *exercise* of religion” and focus only on the “beliefs” portion of the amendment? I understand the extreme “human sacrifice” argument, but in the same way, if a person is not allowed to exercise his religious beliefs freely, does that not destroy the intent and purpose of the amendment?

    I also found this line, in section 6, to be amusing: “Congress … saw fit to make bigamy a crime in the Territories … because of the evil consequences that were supposed to flow from plural marriages.” The evil consequences weren’t actually *shown* to flow from polygamy, they were just *supposed* to flow from it. Conventional wisdom (formed through hearsay, rumors, and biased reports) was the basis of the Congressional statute, and it was subsequently accepted and ratified in the court’s opinion as fact.

    I’m surprised that the court would rely on such supposition in defense of its opinion. Is this normal?


  5. Ugly Mahana
    November 8, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Congress passing a law based on “supposition,” not “evidence.” Hmmm. Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

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