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Jesus on trial: What would a modern jury do?
April 22nd, 2011
07:18 AM ET

Jesus on trial: What would a modern jury do?

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Richmond, Virginia (CNN) - If Jesus were tried in Richmond, Virginia, today, would he have been sentenced to death? Or would he have faced life behind bars with no chance for parole?

That’s the choice given to jurors here recently.

During Lent, the Church of the Holy Comforter used Virginia law to retry the sentencing phase of the blasphemy case against Jesus of Nazareth. Church members and guests played the role of the jury.

The trial was the brainchild of Mark Osler, a former U.S. Attorney in Detroit who teaches at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis and is friends with a member of the Richmond church.

Osler wanted to hold the trial in part to call attention to the state’s use of capital punishment. Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions per state since the mid-1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty, according to federal statistics. He held a similar event in Texas a few years ago.

“For many of us our faith, as it relates to policy especially, is often unexamined,” Osler said “We’re surrounded by people who feel the same way, and what we need to do is have it be troubled at least and see if that takes us someplace different.”

The mock sentencing phase was held the night before Palm Sunday.

Osler played the part of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest in the biblical narrative of the trial. In that account, Jesus had no defense council. But on this night, Osler faced off against Jeanne Bishop, a real-life public defender from Chicago.

“Jesus was indigent,” Bishop said. “And so I think [Osler] wanted a public defender to underscore the point that this is a man with no money, no resources, no position in society.

“Most of the people that I represent fit that description.”

“He also wanted to have a young African-American man play Jesus, and that’s what we have tonight. Most of clients look exactly like this young man who will be sitting beside me,” she said.

The night was bittersweet for Bishop. “My younger sister, her husband and their unborn baby were murdered 21 years ago today, the day before palm Sunday.”

In 1990, Nancy Bishop Langert was killed during a home invasion in Winnetka, Illinois. Her death was part of the reason Jeanne Bishop became a defense attorney and an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

Even before her sister’s murder, Bishop said, she was against the death penalty. “When my sister and her husband and their baby were killed, my immediate response was, ‘No more killing, no more bloodshed, please let it stop right here.’”

Jeanne Bishop questions a witness at the trial of Jesus in Richmond, Virginia

Osler is also against the death penalty. It was a decision he said he reached as a prosecutor while sitting in church one Sunday.

“They read John 8, about stoning the adulteress, and I’m like everyone else - when I hear a story like that, I put myself in the role of Jesus. A lot of prosecutors who are Christians who talk about that will say, ‘Jesus said go and sin no more.’ And what I came to eventually is, ‘I’m not Jesus. I’m part of the mob. I’m somebody with a stone in my hand.’

“I think that story is very direct that we don’t have the moral authority” to execute prisoners, Osler said.

Playing the role of prosecutor and asking jurors to condemn Jesus to death was difficult for Osler.

“It’s very dark to have the prosecutor in me go to war with the faith [in me]. There’s a cynicism you need to be a good prosecutor,” he said. “It’s been in some ways a troubling enterprise, and I didn’t see that coming.”

“We don’t have a script,” Osler said shortly before taking the stage at the Church of the Holy Comforter. “We’re approaching this the way trial lawyers would. I haven’t known what her theory of the case is or what her arguments will be, and she doesn’t know mine. That’s the way it really works. It’s not a play. It really is a trial in that sense.”

Mark Osler waits to take the stage at the trial of Jesus

As the audience took their seats, Bishop leaned over and whispered to her client, a teenager from the church who sat beside her in a dark blazer and khaki pants.

William G. Broaddus played the role of the judge. He was Virginia’s attorney general for six months after his predecessor stepped down to run for governor. During that time, five defendants were executed in Virginia.

“We will now call the case of the Commonwealth of Virginia versus Jesus of Nazareth,” Broaddus bellowed from the pulpit. “I will remind you this man has already been found guilty of the criminal charge of blasphemy.

“Tonight it is your duty to determine the proper punishment,” he told the jurors.

The attorneys each called two witnesses. The prosecution called Peter, one of Jesus closest disciples, and a rich young ruler whom Jesus urged to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor, here though the witness was played by a woman from the congregation. The defense called a centurion whose slave Jesus had healed, as well as Malchus, a high priest's slave whose ear was cut off by Peter then reattached by Jesus.

The sentencing trial followed the rhythms of a standard criminal case. Bishop spoke gently yet firmly as she questioned the witnesses, her line of questioning seeking to emphasize Jesus' acts of compassion and mercy.

Osler was forceful and tried to paint Jesus as a rebel who sought to rend the fabric of society. He also played heavily on the issue of slavery in his questioning.

Richmond was an international slave port prior to the Civil War - a fact not lost on members of the audience, who quietly bristled or frowned when Osler brought it up. He repeatedly reminded them that while Jesus healed the centurion and high priest’s slaves, he did not set them free.

In her closing argument, Bishop told the jury that Jesus loved his enemies. “A man who showed such compassion is at least deserving of your compassion at this moment,” she said.

Osler rebutted that Jesus had “poked a hole in the fabric of society. Are you going to let it tear or are your going to keep it a small hole?” he asked as he tore a hole in his own pressed, white button-down shirt to gasps in the crowd.

After the closing arguments, the audience broke into several juries of 12. Following the Virginia state statutes, they had two votes to consider. First: “Do you find that there is a probability that, if not executed, the defendant would commit criminal acts that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society?”

If they answered yes to that question, they were instructed to move on to the second: “In the light of all mitigation, is a death sentence warranted?” Both questions required a unanimous vote.

In one of the juries, 11 members quickly agreed the answer to the first question was yes, but there was one holdout. The other jury members began to press her in favor of the prosecution. Eventually they were successful.

“I think he's convincing," an older woman on the panel said of Osler, adding, “I didn't like myself for thinking that."

As the judge told the crowd they had just five minutes left to deliberate, the noise in the sanctuary grew louder and more heated.

The votes were taken and the jury forms passed forward.

The judge stepped forward and read the verdict.

“Jesus please stand,” he said.

He read the first question aloud and said, “The majority of the juries have found that should be answered in the affirmative.”

It meant the juries thought Jesus would blaspheme again if not executed.

“Turning then to the next question,” he said. “The majority of the juries voting on that issue found that the death sentence is not warranted.”

There was applause from the audience.

“The defendant is remanded to the jailer for the rest of your natural life.”

And with that the trial ended.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Episcopal • United States

soundoff (1,632 Responses)
  1. Brent

    A tasteless PR stunt performed by legal turds - during Holy Week, no less. The bigger issue to consider is whether the modern world, with its complete lack of values, absence of faith, and love of consumption, could even recognize a messiah to begin with.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  2. Kevin

    kind of a weird spectacle.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  3. Billy Bob

    Jesus did not cross paths with the kind of slaves that the South had. As a believer I’m ashamed I can’t quote but here what I “think”.
    Slave 1…taken captive when a nation conquers and other nation and these slaves are slaves for life.
    Slave 2…If I don’t pay my obligations the owner of a business or person can call me into slavery ONLY to pay off my debt. In 7 year all these slaves are set free. They are respected and taken care of like family until their debt is paid off.
    The Jewish people were Slaves1. The slaves Jesus interacted with are Slaves2.
    Again I may be wrong..My solution???? I’m gonna read the bible to find out.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Erik

      Rather than just the Bible, how about some history texts so that you don't fall into the enslavement of the Jews pitfall that is now more or less doctrine (which still does not make it true). There is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, NO historical evidence AT ALL that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. The time period in which all of this would have happened coincides with the conquest of Lower Egypt (the delta region) by a semitic group, the Hyksos, who would have been brethren of the Jews (also semitic). The story of Joseph is a metaphor of the movement of the Jews into this Hyksos controlled Egypt where they prospered. However, it is clear that the Pharoah who is the oppressor was a returned Egyptian leader from Upper Egypt (up river from the delta region) who was not semitic and began a process of "liberation" and "repatriation" of his "homeland" by divesting it of foreigners (those racially different). So, go ahead an look through the Bible, but go beyond it, too, because it is greatly lacking when it comes to historical accuracy and range.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  4. Shawn

    This blog gets more ridiculous everyday, I love it for the laughs I get but isn't it more fiction than religion at this point?

    April 22, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • John Richardson

      Well, organized religion is more fiction than spirituality. So this blog is on the right wavelength, it would seem.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  5. Randall

    I can read these comments on here and from an outsiders perspective there is an obvious difference between those of you that know Christ and for those of you who do not. I pray that the people that posted comments on here claiming to have a perfectly normal life without Christ is probably true because satan has nothing to worry about with you. I pray for you to ask the lord to expose himself to you in a very special way. God bless!

    April 22, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • gogogopher

      how do you account for Jesus Christ killing kids? 42 of them....
      how do you account for Christ taking the life of a virgin girl as payment for a victory in a battle with 20 villages where women/children/goats were slaughtered?
      Read the Bible....

      April 22, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Erik

      I hope "he" won't expose himself in a special way, that tends to be considered illegal in most communities.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • John Richardson

      Whoah! If god is going to go around exposing himself, then we may have grounds for a trial after all ...

      April 22, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Mike

      @gogogopher lay off Jesus. So he killed 42 kids. His dad kills millions of kids every year via cancer, earthquakes, etc. It's hard to break the cycle when it runs so deep in the family.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • bill

      how do you account for the fact the 4/5ths of the world do not even believe in jesus?

      Are we all doomed?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • sgjc

      God has answered your prayer to 'expose himself'... 'in a very special way'. He created pedophile priests for that purpose.... God Bless!

      April 22, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  6. Erik

    It is interesting to conjecture the likely result of bringing a patriotic, die-hard Roman citizen of the First Century forward in time to see the consequences of the public execution of Jesus. This small, at the time insiginificant execution set in motion a massive social and religious shift of power in the Mediterranean world, a shift that continued to expand outward with profound social, poltiical, and economic implications (to say nothing of religion). Given the chance, would that Roman citizen decide that it would have been better to have simply whipped and released Jesus, allowing him to lead an unremarkable life and die an unknown peasant in the backwaters of an extensive empire? Think of Osama bin Laden before answering this yourself. Do we really want to hunt him down and execute him, turning him into a modern Jesus figure?

    April 22, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Shawn

      True, but people were certainly less educated then than they are now (although plenty of people are still uneducated now, and emotional appeals can convert even intelligent people). So it is a much smaller group you'd have to worry about, but yes the effect is similar.

      April 22, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  7. Alverant

    Jesus should get the same punishment for blasphemy that his followers gave others for the same "crime": a long and painful death. It's what Jesus would have wanted because that's what happened.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Michelle Shira

      Were you there? You must have been to be so certain of what happened over 2 thousand years ago.

      April 22, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  8. bill

    This whole premise is ridiculous.

    Even if Jesus existed, freedom of speach. What is the point here?

    April 22, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Shawn

      The point is christians get to continue to play their little fantasy games

      April 22, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • .

      Obviously, if Jesus were around today, He would be inst.itutionalized due to his "messiah" complex.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

      Proverbs 26:5

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  9. Jason

    So we would still find the Son of God guilty today even though there is absolutely no evidence against him? This is ridiculous and sad.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • .

      Agree with the ridiculous part.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Natalie

      They bypassed that part all together by starting this "trial" after the conviction. It begins with the premise that he was already found guilty of blasphemy...which of course isn't actually a crime here, so I'm not sure what the whole point actually was.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  10. Mazen Elsaleh

    This is something rediculious to do this to the one of the most beloved to God.
    Jesus did not die but his teaching got killed and he will come back to restore justice. He is great messenger came with a miracle of bringing dead people to life and healing the blind ones. Similarly with Mosses who split the ocean into 12 roads. He also is great messenger.
    Jesus never claimed he is God or his son. All his companions got massacred so the truth never reach out people. Mohammed had to come, the last one to finish where Jesus left. Peace be upon Moses,Jessus, and Mohammed.
    All of them are slave of one God, the God of Ibrahim and Adam.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.

      Proverbs 26:12

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  11. ABD

    The only people who make fun of their god are the christians, they make fun of Jesus in movies, cartoons, commercials, etc, and nobody cares, they think it is fun, this shows how much they really love him ..yeah right

    April 22, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • HeavenSent

      ABD, Christians don't run H-wood and we don't watch their mindless movies. Only you fools watch and believe their trash for the trash.

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  12. Dan

    What a strange mock trial performed by Christians none the less. If Virginia's legal system was available to Jesus then he would not have died on the cross. He may have found another way to die for our sins however being imprisoned for life it would have taken a suicide to make it happen. How do they expect their religion to be born without Christ being put to death?

    April 22, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • .

      He could probably wrangle getting shived by the Aryan Nation in prison or some other obliging gang.
      hmmm... would that put the stigmata in the back below the ribcage?

      April 22, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  13. zxasxz46

    Uh this is not about religion, this is about Olser's agenda.
    uh.........

    April 22, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  14. Mr. Bones

    I'm not sure it's actually ILLEGAL to go around telling people you're the son of God in the U.S., so I'm guessing this would never go to trial in the first place today.

    I'm the son of God!

    [dramatic pause]

    See? No cops. No lawyers. No trial. No nothin'.

    He might get fined for practicing medicine without a license, though, and that whole business with Lazarus would definitely violate a few health codes. Dead guy walkin' around after four days...that's not sanitary! Other than that, we'd just "put him someplace" for being a nut.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  15. David

    Nobody killed Jesus is like nobody killing Tinker Bell. Fiction on trial.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Wake Up

      It would be wise of you to turn to Jesus while you still have time and flee the wrath to come. He is coming back.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Shawn

      Hey Wake-up.... wanna lay a little wager on that?

      April 22, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • .

      @Wake Up,
      Just like a neglectful deity to leave to 2000+ years and expect everyone to be angels when He gets back. sheesh1

      April 22, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • HeavenSent

      And all the non-believers are Peter and Patricia Pans.

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  16. Donald Trump

    I want to see Jesus' birth certificate

    April 22, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • John Richardson

      Bwahahahahaha!!!!

      April 22, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Tyler Durden

      Oh wow, did I laugh...

      April 22, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • .

      HA! good one!

      April 22, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  17. Zombie Jesus

    People, don't be silly. If this was a US trial it would be thrown out. We do not have any enforceable blasphemy laws thank god!!! Very Ironic I know.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • NClaw441

      We don't have blasphemy laws, unless you count political correctness. There are many places where to disagree with "the progressive gospel" on issues such as global warming, hate crimes, pro-choice, etc. might merit the death penalty in the eyes of many.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Shawn

      Instead he would have been tried for horse theft and possibly fraud if he convinced people to give him money.

      April 22, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  18. John Richardson

    This was perhaps one of the stupidest stunts churchies have ever come up with. Jesus wasn't the son of god or even a particularly great teacher, but he also was never even accused of doing anything that would come close to being a capital crime in any halfway civilized society. Now, go back to the middle ages of christian hegemony in Europe and even the early modern days of catholic vs protestant mayhem or Puritan America or modern Pakistan and you can ask realistically whether he would get the death penalty and chances are he would have.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Zombie Jesus

      Amen!!!

      April 22, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Colonelingus

      Well said, John.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Truth

      That fact that you don't believe is irrelevant. "One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
      The fact remains that you are created in the image of God. Jesus went to the cross to carry the burden of sin. "For without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins." This sacrifice was not like the sacrifiace of an animal which happened time and again, but was a sacrifice once and for all, that all who belive will be saved.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • .

      @Colonelingus,
      The SNL skit used Colonel Angus...

      April 22, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • .

      @Truth,
      The fact that you *do* believe is irrelevant.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • John Richardson

      @"Truth" The fact that who doesn't believe is irrelevant to what?

      April 22, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Truth

      You are correct; If I beleieve or not is irrelevant. It's not about me or you, it's about the truth of God's word. People have tried to silence the truth for centuries, and yet it remians. Research the Old Testament prophecies of the comming Messiah and evaluate how they stack up next to Jesus.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Manma DeReli Gon

      @Truth. How do you people get to believe something so deeply when there is no proof??? Whats more the opposite is true. The bible is full of inconsistencies. Have you even read the bible (and I mean not just memorizing a few catch phrases) have you actually read it and applied God-given reason to the 'facts'?

      April 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  19. Steve

    So if Jesus were executed today, would people have little charms of an electric chair around their neck?

    April 22, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Zombie Jesus

      Likely a needle....

      April 22, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Flubbergasted in US

      Delicious! The needle on a bracelet, an electric chair on a neck chain. Oh boy, you can't make a better case for delusional religious habits than that. Thanks.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Breezy

      You are actually on to something there. The Greek word used so often in the NT translated incorrectly as "cross" is actually simply the word for "stake/pole made of wood" the SYMBOL of a cross and its connection to a resurrected god originated thousands of years before Christ. Tammutz in Babylonian paganism is symbolized by a lower case 't' exactly the same symbol used to represent Jesus, and his resurrection was on the festival of Ester after the lamenting of his mother Ester (Asteroth) for a period of 40 days (lent).

      "Thou shall NOT make graven images to REPRESENT anything in heaven or on earth"- 2nd commandment

      Jesus Christ was the PASSOVER lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, He died on Passover day fufilling all that day represents he rose from the dead 3 full days later (not a day and half) just before sunset on the Sabbath within the Feast of unleavened bread on the Day of the wafe sheaf offerring as in perfectly fufilled.

      Easter (Ester) and SUNday (sun god) worship and the IMAGE of a 't' do not originate in the Bible and that is something most people will never accept unfortunately. All these things are easy to research if you find issue with hearing them, this response is not meant to teach or debate, just simply explain where the things we sometimes do by our tradition truely originate, if it is not scriptoral, one should care.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.

      Proverbs 16:5

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  20. Jill

    Nobody killed Jesus, He freely gave up his life. Whoever believes that He died on the cross to forgive your sins, believes He rose from the dead and repent, It is written: You shall be saved. If you deny me before man I will deny you before my father.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Malik

      Amen!

      April 22, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Roger Banfield

      Jesus was not found guilty of anything! He was charged with blasphemy, but not convicted. Also, when the Jews took him before the roman courts, they changed the charge to treason, without evidence, nor witnesses. The court was held at night, behind closed doors, with no one there in behalf of Jesus! This is clearly against Jewish and Roman procedure... if people wish to comment on this, i wish they would read first, so as to not look foolish...

      April 22, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Alverant

      If Jesus gave up his life freely, then he committed suicide. Suicide is a mortal sin and he should go to Hell.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Unbelievable

      Wow, for you nobody killed Jesus... so, you mean he killed humself? That's suicide! I guess gour Bible is not indicating that Jews clerics and Roman politicians were involved.

      April 22, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • gogogopher

      Jesus was guilty of killing 42 children in 2 Kings Chapter 2. He sent two bears outta the woods to maul those kids. Can you imagine? All for making fun of a preacher's bald head. Talk about overkill.

      The Word was God. So, if you're into the trinity, you cannot say,"Jesus didn't send those bears..." Kid killer....

      April 22, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • jESUIT

      @gogogopher, not true

      April 22, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Mike

      Can someone please clear up how if someone dies 2000 years ago this forgives my sin somehow? Why can't god just say that if you're a good person and are truly sorry for anyone you may have wronged, then you're golden, i.e. Jesus' death is irrelevant? It makes no sense. We all just rot when we die anyway, so what's it matter?

      April 22, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Mike, I can tell that you rot as you continue to suck up oxygen as a dry bones, well without water, spiritually dead walking among us today.

      Amen.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Shawn

      You are quoting the Bible as evidence of your religion's accuracy? You need to produce some actual tangible evidence, not just a presupposition that it is true therefore it is true. Because that's what all religions say "Islam is true because it is true, Zeus is true because he is true, the FSM is true because it is true".

      April 22, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.