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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. Dallas

    There are lots of people around today that claim they are Prophets of God, so I think Jesus would be treated as they are treated. Some people believing in him others thinking its a big joke, but not being jailed or the death penalty. I have great Faith in God and believe in the great 'Golden Rule' Do unto others as you would have them do unto you...and treat everyone equally, whether you have a Faith or not...

    April 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  2. Mickey Haist Jr

    Shorter trial, more tortuous death, general eagerness to kill the guy that says he knows something you don't know, the guy that says you're doing bad things, the guy that says he can rescue you from yourself and from your self-made condemnation. People hate him as much now as they ever did.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  3. Jessica S

    I'm all for the death penalty!! There's a big difference between stoning an adulteress to death and providing capital punishment for someone who MURDERED people including children. What the hell is this guys problem? He says "I want the bloodshed to end". Okay... then off the murderer so that he won't kill anybody else. There... bloodshed ended in his case. Why should tax payers pay for him to eat and sleep in prison when he murdered a baby! Oh and God didn't kill people? Yeah he killed lots of people. Read it in the bible! So yeah I'm on God's side.. Kill em and get rid of them. Thanks Jesus, I won't go killing adulterers. Point made and an easy one to follow..

    April 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jessica S

      Oh and who cares if Jesus would be found guilty or not? This scenario would never happen so I don't see the point wasting time trying to figure it out.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      My 90 year old aunt was murdered in her sleep at the nursing home where she lived. Another resident there, a 48 year old woman put a pillow over her face in order to take the 90 some odd dollars she had in her purse. The woman got 12 years due to reasons of insanity.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • allanhowls

      Maybe you should go back and re-read all the parts you missed about compassion, love, and "thou shalt not kill."

      You and your interpretation of god are sick, bloodthirsty killers, just itching for a chance to get revenge on someone. The kingdom of heaven is not for you.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • marta

      The point Jessica S, is that you didn't make one. ..point, that is. Aside from your vengeful murderous tendencies and whatever you say is also not as easy to follow as you seem to believe. You see, I put you in the shoes of being wrongly accused of killing someone (wasn't too hard to imagine that, I confess) and I'm afraid you may not be too happy with the prospect of being put to death... or maybe I should call it a little less medieval, euthanize you.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Not Jessica S

      I like how you think revenge is justice. I also like how you're unapologetic for wanting revenge. You seem like a real classy lady.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  4. Washed clean by the Blood

    Those of us that know Him as the Power of God unto salvation can be grateful that he wasn't tried in Richmond. To those that are perishing either outcome would provide the same results.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • SANJOSEMIKE

      Salvation? What salvation? Where was your god in Auschwitz? Missing, dead or asleep at the switch?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Matt

      SANJOSEMIKE, your misplaced anger towards God doesn't make Him vanish from existence. God was very much present in Auschwitz and I bet you can find testimonies from prisoners held there that would agree, do a simple google search.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  5. Artist

    He no doubt would be locked up in a mental insti tution.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  6. OC Jim

    He would be found Guilty and crucified just like before. We are just repeating History.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  7. Jesusfreaker

    Maybe Jesus wasn't executed. Since the first book of the New Testament wasn't written until 35 to 70 years after Jesus died, anything is possible. Could this have been the point of the exercise. Just a thought.

    .

    April 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • SANJOSEMIKE

      ...and maybe he didn't exist at all....sanjosemike

      April 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Matt

      It's pretty universally accepted that the person of Jesus of Nazareth was tried and executed by crucifixion by the Roman governmental structure in the area on a historical basis if you want to throw spirituality out the window...

      April 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  8. t good

    He's gonna rip all them lawyers and judges a new one is what's gonna happen. He's the baddest mamma jamma in town

    April 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  9. Matt

    This "trial" doesn't take into account a lot of the extra factors of Jesus' trial. For example, Pilate was under stress to keep his territory under control. The Jewish populous in his district had led several insurrections against him and his Roman counterparts. He was under huge stress to prevent further riots or lose his position and face punishment from Rome. This had a huge impact on his decision to have Jesus crucified even though he found no cause for the sentence.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Silly

      Again, not about Jesus and Christianity or the blasphemy charges. This was about the death penalty and how it is applied.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Matt

      If this is all about application of the death penalty, it's a farce. There is no statute in US legislation that allows for execution based off the crime of "blasphemy," which isn't even a punishable offense in this country. Even going the route of "this man is a deviant who is inciting revolution" would not support life in prison or execution. This was a joke that someone with too much money and too many resources felt the need to perform for his own personal reasons.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  10. JT

    This is just so freaking retarded. Who cares!? Plus, its completely out of context with the American judicial system...like, really? Waste of time.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • sam

      i agree with this. it would be like going to sports stadiums and asking random spectators if they would rather the athletes take up arms and fight to the death for their entertainment. even in american history, we hanged plenty of supposed 'witches' without any evidence. today there are groups of people who openly claim to be witches and they are perfectly safe to do so.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      Exactly. I don't know what data CNN is referencing which is determined their readership wants to see this crap

      April 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Silly

      High school students retry cases all the time. It's a learning exercise in law. This was a learning exercise to see if we've learned anything. It would have been more instructive to retry the case for blasphemy – USA first amendnent free speech would have halted the case before it came to trial. It was about the death penalty and how it is applied – not about Jesus and Christianity.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • JT

      That's nice, but I'm a lawyer and couldn't think of a larger waste of time. How about a civics lesson. 80% of Americans can't even name their own U.S. Representative...

      April 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Artist

    If he came back would he still be a carpenter or a landscaper?

    April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jesus

      I think that if Jesus came back today he'd be either a hair dresser or an interior decorator. Actually the first thing he'd probably do is deal with all those religion hucksters who used his name to make a fortune (without giving him a cut of the action).

      April 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Silly

      A lawyer, he was a jew after all.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Tim

    It was kind of the point that he had to die to redeem all of humanity for our sins. Thanks jury. He could have saved himself, but did not.

    I understand the exercise. and i think it was stupid.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • SANJOSEMIKE

      I didn't ask anyone to 'die" to expiate my sins. In the mean time, the so-called god people worship allowed 6 million Jews to perish horribly in the Holocaust. P**s on that god.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      @sanjosemike – not just 6 million jews, mind you... the nazis exterminated another 5+ million "undesirables", from blacks to gays to the romany to intellectuals to artists to communists to etc, etc.... i lost (distant) relatives to the nazis, but i generally dislike hearing the nazis' atrocities being limited to just my fellow jews... *all* their victims should be recognized.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  13. tensai13

    Jesus is innocent , its his criminally insane father who should be tried for crimes against humanity.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • SANJOSEMIKE

      I agree. The "god" of the old testament is a psychopath.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      good point

      April 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Jesus

      Have you folks noticed that later depictions of Jesus has him looking much more nordic than semitic. What's with that? Are believers ashamed that they are most probably worshipping a 5' 3" hook nosed swarthy male?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • No One Is Safe

      @jesus – was he *ever* depicted accurately??? (religious art is not something i'm remotely interested in or attentive to, so that's a genuine question.) i have never seen *any* painting, sculpture, or other rendering of him depicting him as anything but blond-haired & blue-eyed...

      April 23, 2011 at 1:04 am |
  14. SANJOSEMIKE

    Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

    April 22, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Barbara Barrs

      Absolutely not: Sin against God. I pray someday you'll know.

      April 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Barbara Barrs

      You are lost and hope you will find the One who is all merciful and all loving. Bless you!

      April 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  15. Hawkeye1012

    "Not guilty by reason of insanity."

    Next!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  16. Satyr

    Why does it matter because http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com and don't read the http://www.EVILbible.com ...

    April 22, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  17. Godless

    Jesus would have plead innocent by reason of insanity. (Sorry if that joke's been made a dozen times, it's just too easy.)

    April 22, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  18. movement31

    Ok people. Here is the fact of religion and god. The truth is no one really knows teh truth. I dont see why no one will admit this. Everyone in this world is going off of books they are reading and hanging onto faith. I dont talk down to anyone religion becuase i'm not the one to judge. I dont know the truth of existence myself. I hope to one day get to the truth but its all speculation right now. If believing in what you believe in gives you comfort and brings you peace and kindness to those around you, then keep going with it. Society uses religion adn god for all purposes. We condemned the guilty to death but then we say only god can judge. We have priest in churches molesting children. This has been goign on for centuries with the catholic church but yet there are still members and a great massive following. Civilization has used religion to kill, steal and conquer for the longest time. We condemn cult leaders for leading there people to death for there on cause but isnt that what has been happening for years with religion. Religion is the biggest cult but we choose to view the other side as long as it fits us. I dont hate anyone whether its your race, color or religion because i dont know whos right. I just live and love and keep kindness in my heart to everyone

    April 22, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • RightOn

      Amen

      April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  19. Toby

    “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” ~Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams

    April 22, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  20. STU

    Interesting point!!! What if this trial was held in Israel by their religious leaders, instead of Virginia, and imagine Israel not being dependent on US aid and support.
    What would be the result? Wouldn't that be more realistic scenario? I don't think the verdict would have been much different than the original verdict 2000 years ago.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • SANJOSEMIKE

      Wrong. Nobody in israel is ever charged for blasphemy as a crime. Period.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Adam

      Try Rome. Try the Vatican.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jesus

      What would happen if Santa Claus was tried for riding a sled in the sky without an FAA License? Or the Tooth Fairy charged with "breaking and entering homes" to exchange money for teeth? Or the Leprechaun for stealing my lucky charms?

      April 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • STU

      The only reason no one has been punished in Israeel for blasphemy as a crime, because Israel depends on western support to exist!! That's why it was mentioned, if Israel does not need any support from outsiders, only then Jesus may face same result as he face in front of same people with same laws

      April 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • I Am That I Am

      The hippie liberal would be executed by rent-a-cops for disorderly conduct using one of those "non-lethal" Tasers that seem to keep killing people...like at Universal Orlando today.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Tim

      Israel did not try Him – Rome did...

      April 22, 2011 at 12:16 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.