Monday, February 16, 2009

LOCAL HEROES: JURIES NULLIFY LAWS THEY DON'T LIKE

J.D. Tuccille, DC Examiner - The jury box is just about the only place where average citizens can veto bad laws. In Washington, D.C., a jury ignored a military veteran's obvious violation of the city's draconian gun laws, setting him free with only a slap on the wrist. In LaSalle County, Illinois, a medical marijuana user found with 25 pounds of the plant didn't even get the slap; jurors chatted with him after finding him not guilty. While we can't know for sure, in both cases jury nullification was likely at work as regular people serving an important role in courtrooms exercised their power to quash laws they found repugnant.

Corporal Melroy H. Cort, who lost his knees to an improvised bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, was en route to Walter Reed Hospital from his home in Columbus, Ohio, when his car got a flat. He and his wife, Samantha, pulled over for repairs, at which time Cort, who has a concealed carry permit at home, retrieved his 9mm pistol from his glove compartment and put it in his pocket.

Cort's gun was spotted by somebody who called police, and Cort rapidly gained an education in D.C.'s notoriously strict firearms laws. He was charged with carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm and possession of ammunition. He spent the night behind bars for having the nerve to possess a weapon in a city that, while it has improved since its nadir in the 1990s, still has about triple the national average rate of violent crime. . .

According to the Washington Post:

"After being deadlocked twice, a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday acquitted a Marine amputee on felony charges of gun possession stemming from an arrest while he was on the way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. . . Although acquitting him of the gun charges, the jury found Cort guilty of possessing ammunition, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to time already spent in the D.C. jail."

Historically, as President John Adams put it, it has been the juror's "duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." Unfortunately, you won't come across that quote from Adams in many modern courtrooms. Government officials don't like being second-guessed by the hoi polloi, so the tradition of independent juries has been allowed to wither from neglect. Few jurors ever learn about the traditional power of juries. . .

To preserve what's left of our liberty, jury nullification is a good and powerful tool for checking government power. But since it is frequently discouraged by judges and prosecutors jealous of their prerogatives, it's generally exercised on the sly -- often by jurors unaware that they're doing exactly what was originally intended. For that reason, we'll likely never know exactly when nullification is being exercised.

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