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No New Trial on Religious Separatist Claims

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of new trial on a Missouri prisoner’s religious freedom claims.

Missouri prisoner Michael Murphy “is a practicing member of the Christian Separatist Church Society (CSC)” which “allows only Caucasians to be members and which believes that Caucasians are uniquely blessed by God and must separate themselves from all non-Caucasians.” Prison officials denied his request for CSC group worship services and refused to deliver Issue #36 of “The Way,” a CSC publication Murphy received through the mail.

Murphy brought suit in federal court, alleging that the denial of worship services violated the Establishment Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and his right to the free exercise of religion. He also claimed that rejection of the CSC publication violated his free speech rights. The district court granted prison officials summary judgment, but the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded Murphy’s free speech and RLUIPA claims, Murphy v. MO Dept. of Corr., 372 F.3d 979 (8th Cir. 2004)(Murphy I). On remand, a jury ruled in favor of prison officials on both claims. Murphy moved for a new trial but the district court denied the motion.

On appeal, Murphy challenged two jury instructions. Because Murphy failed to object to the instructions at trial, the Eighth Circuit reviewed the instructions only for plain error. Under this analysis, the court rejected Murphy’s claim that the RLUIPA instruction was erroneous. The court found that given its “holding in Murphy I, the district court did not plainly err, if indeed it erred at all, in giving the” RLUIPA instruction.

The court also rejected Murphy’s argument that the district court should have given a supervisory liability instruction on his free speech claim. “Murphy did not propose such an instruction,…nor did he object to the instructions as given at trial.” The court also rejected Murphy’s contention that his free speech claim should have been treated as a RLUIPA claim rather than a 42 USC § 1983 claim. In Murphy I, the court treated Murphy’s free speech claim as a § 1983 claim and, again, Murphy expressed no objection at trial.” Moreover, “his proposed jury instructions set forth a free speech claim separate from his RLUIPA claim.”

Since the motion for new trial was based only upon the purportedly erroneous jury instructions, which, in fact, were not erroneous, the court concluded that denial of the motion was proper and not an abuse of discretion.

The court denied Murphy’s arguments related to the exclusion of affidavits of other prisoners, finding that “because Murphy did not attempt to introduce this evidence at trial, he cannot now assert that its absence constitutes prejudicial error.” The trial court also did not err in refusing to allow one of Murphy’s witnesses to testify upon finding that her testimony would not be relevant. “Murphy failed to make an offer of proof regarding the witness’s proposed testimony…and thus did not reserve the issue for…review.”

Finally, the court held that reconsideration of Murphy I under FRCP 60(b) was not proper. To prevail, Murphy was required to “show, ‘with clear and convincing evidence that the opposing party engaged in a fraud or misrepresentation that prevented the movant from fully and fairly presenting its case.’” Murphy failed to show “clear evidence of fraudulent conduct on defendants’ part” or that any arguably fraudulent conduct “would have prevented him from obtaining a fair opportunity to litigate his claim or receiving an adequate redress.” See: Murphy v. Missouri Department of Corrections 506 F.3d 1111 (8th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Murphy v. Missouri Department of Corrections