Jury Duty

This post was written by marc on March 7, 2005
Posted Under: Law

I’m supposed to show up for jury duty today. I checked in on the Internet about is and I was supposed to go to http://www.sanmateocourt.org but typed http://www.sanmateocourt.com instead. That web site had a link to another site about juror’s rights.

It’s an interesting article and the point of it is that as a juror you have the right and duty to override the law if you feel it is unjust — and — the government is doing everything they can to keep you from knowing about that. It’s called jury nullification which is a term I didn’t really like until I found out that it meant jurry nullification of law.

What this means is if you are on a jury and you are told you have to convict someone of a crime that is a bullshit offense – you don’t hav to do it. You can find him “not guilty” even if you know for sure that he committed the crime.

The founding fathers gave juries that power so that they can put a human element into the decision making process. The wanted real people to make the final decision and to use their own values to determine if it was “right” to convict someone of a crime. They understood that sometimes the law is imprecise and that someone might have technically committed a crime but the law was being applied in a way that it was never meant to be used. Or – that if a law is just plain unjust then real people can decide to nullify it. It is part of the checks and balances written into the constitution that give 12 people the final decision. A judge has to rule according to the law. A jury does not.

The Article goes into some of the history of why this is so important and how these kinds of decisions have lead to some of our most important freedoms that we enjoy today.

“Jury nullification of law”, as it is sometimes called, is a traditional American right defended by the Founding Fathers. Those patriots intended that the jury serve as one of the tests a law must pass through before it assumes enough popular authority to be enforced. Our constitutional designers saw to it that each enactment of law must pass the scrutiny of these tribunals before it gains the authority to punish those who choose to violate any written law. Thomas Jefferson said, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

Four decades before Jefferson spoke these words, a jury had established freedom of the press in the colonies by finding John Peter Zenger not guilty of seditious libel. He had been arrested and charged for printing critical but true news stories about the Governor of New York Colony. “Truth is no defense”, the court told the jury! But the jury decided to reject bad law, and acquitted.

Why? Because defense attorney Andrew Hamilton informed the jury of its rights: he related the story of William Penn’s trial of the courageous London jury which refused to find him guilty of preaching Quaker religious doctrine (at that time an illegal religion). His jurors stood by their verdict even though held without food, water, or toilet facilities for four days. The jurors were fined and imprisoned for refusing to convict William Penn until England’s highest court acknowledged their right to reject both law and fact and to find a verdict according to conscience. It was exercise of that right in Penn’s trial which eventually led to recognition of free speech, freedom of religion, and of peaceable assembly as individual rights.

American colonial juries regularly thwarted bad law sent over from mother England. Britain then retaliated by restricting both trial by jury and other rights which juries had won or protected. Result? The Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution!

It is your duty to think for yourselves. The judge will not instruct you to do this. In fact may judges are hostile to your rights and duties as jurors.

About 18 months ago, armed with a number of pamphlets explaining the importance to each of us in having the courts fully inform juries of their rights, I stood in the Mendocino County Courthouse. I had been talking about this issue, with courthouse visitors when I was “invited” into Judge James Luther’s courtroom by two of his bailiffs. Judge Luther, showed me how in general our courts have eroded. I was told to stop talking to my fellow citizens about their constitutional rights. Their right to understand a jury’s role in the court procedure. I was told to stop or be arrested for jury tampering.

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