Thursday, December 23, 2010

Montana jury’s refusal to judge marijuana case not “mutiny”



By "Radical" Russ Belville on December 22, 2010

By now you’ve heard the story reported by The Missoulian about a man charged with 1/16th an ounce of marijuana whom the prosecutors could not try because they could not find any unbiased jurors who would convict for such a small amount:

The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel.

No, they said, one after the other. No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce.

In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul.

District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.

The one problem I have with the story is in how the media are framing the jurors’ actions. In the Missoulian piece, the jurors are said to have “staged a revolt”.

The Huffington Post reports “Montana Jury Stages ‘Mutiny’ in Marijuana Case”.

USA Today writes “Court stunned by ‘munity’ from jury pool over marijuana case”.

The “mutiny” theme has been echoed by many other outlets picking up the story. For the sake of discussion, let’s remember exactly what “mutiny” means:

Mutiny is a conspiracy among members of a group of similarly-situated individuals (typically members of the military; or the crew of any ship, even if they are civilians) to openly oppose, change or overthrow an existing authority.

Did these jurors conspire? Nope, they had never met each other before being called on their civic duty to a jury pool.

Did these jurors attempt to overthrow an existing authority? Nope, they just refused to be unbiased regarding a small-time marijuana charge.

The immediate framing of this jury’s action as “revolt” or “mutiny” just proves how far we have fallen from understanding the true nature of the jury system. The media that believes they opposed authority don’t understand that the true authority in the court system is not the judge, the prosecutor, or even the laws, but the people. How can the people be in revolt against themselves?

The jury system has existed for over 700 years since the signing of the Magna Carta. It remains the ultimate check against the tyranny of government as it provides the people a method for balancing the laws written by the Legislative, signed by the Executive, and enforced by the Judicial branches of government. According to Professor Duane writing for the Fully Informed Jury Association:

At the time the Constitution was written, the definition of the term “jury” referred to a group of citizens empowered to judge both the law and the evidence in the case before it. Then, in the February term of 1794, the Supreme Court conducted a jury trial in the case of the State of Georgia vs. Brailsford. The instructions to the jury in the first jury trial before the Supreme Court of the United States illustrate the true power of the jury. Chief Justice John Jay said:

“It is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your power of decision. …you have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy”.

So you see, in an American courtroom there are in a sense twelve judges in attendance, not just one. And they are there with the power to review the “law” as well as the “facts”! Actually, the “judge” is there to conduct the proceedings in an orderly fashion and maintain the safety of all parties involved.

As recently as 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the jury has an “unreviewable and irreversible power… to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge….”

Or as this same truth was stated in a earlier decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Maryland:

“We recognize, as appellants urge, the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by the judge, and contrary to the evidence. This is a power that must exist as long as we adhere to the general verdict in criminal cases, for the courts cannot search the minds of the jurors to find the basis upon which they judge. If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused, is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic of passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision.”

This group of jurors in Montana aren’t “mutineers”. They’re patriots!


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