Jury nullification education still barely 'legal' in USA, rules judge

Tuesday, May 08, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: jury nullification, courts, judge

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(NaturalNews) Jury nullification, a legal concept that dates back to 17th century England, remains perfectly lawful in the United States, according to a ruling by a federal judge last month.

U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood said 80-year-old Julian Heicklin, who was arrested by FBI agents for passing out pamphlets marked "Jury Info" from an organization known as the Fully Informed Jury Association to an undercover agent, was within his legal rights under law to do so. Prosecutors had argued that Heicklin was in violation of U.S. law, which prohibits influencing jurors through written communication.

"Heicklen advocates passionately for the right of jurors to determine the law as well as the facts," Wood wrote. "The pamphlets state that a juror has not just the responsibility to determine the facts of a case before her on the basis of the evidence presented, but also the power to determine the law according to her conscience."

Jurors can be told about nullification, not about how to decide a specific case

Wood said Heicklen well understood his legal rights, and noted that Title 18 United States Code, which government lawyers cited in their prosecution, prevents trying to influence a juror in relation to specific cases or points of law. Heicklen was not doing that, Wood said.

"The statute thus prohibits a defendant from trying to influence a juror upon any case or point in dispute before that juror by means of a written communication in relation to that case or that point in dispute," the 27-page order says.

"It also prohibits a defendant from trying to influence a juror's actions or decisions pertaining to that juror's duties, but only if the defendant made that communication in relation to a case or point in dispute before that juror," the order continues. "The statute therefore squarely criminalizes efforts to influence the outcome of a case, but exempts the broad categories of journalistic, academic, political, and other writings that discuss the roles and responsibilities of jurors in general, as well as innocent notes from friends and spouses encouraging jurors to arrive on time or to rush home, to listen closely or to deliberate carefully, but with no relation to the outcome of a particular case."

Judge the law instead of the lawbreaker

The concept of jury nullification is that jurors should be able to not only decide whether a defendant violated the law, but whether the law itself is just and proper. Another way to describe the process is that it's a constitutional doctrine allowing juries to acquit defendants who are technically guilty of a crime on the books but who juries don't feel deserve to be punished. In essence, the jury is saying the law is unfair or unjust.

In Heicklen's case, Wood wrote, "the court reads the plain text of the [federal] statute to require that a defendant must have sought to influence a juror through a written communication in relation either to a specific case before that juror or to a substantive point in dispute between two or more parties before that juror." And Heinklen, a retired chemistry professor, didn't do that, Wood ruled; he was simply informing juries outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan, from October 2009 to May 2010, that they were under no obligation to find defendants guilty of laws they didn't feel were just or proper.

In his dialogue with the undercover FBI agent who posed as a juror, Heicklen said the pamphlet he was handing out was just general information regarding the nullification process.

"The jury has the right to judge the law as well as the facts. The judge will tell you otherwise, but there are several Supreme Court decisions which said that was true. In other words, if you think the law is unjust you can find a person innocent," he said, according to a transcript of the conversation released by the court.

Prosecutors argued that "advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without Constitutional protections no matter where it occurred."

"His speech is not protected by the First Amendment," they added. "No legal system could long survive if it gave every individual the option of disregarding with impunity any law which by his personal standard was judged morally untenable," they said.

Prosecutors were seeking six months in jail. They didn't get it.

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