Where she grew up in the Midwest, The Free Agent knows many people who have lived out their natural life spans without ever having been called to jury duty. Because she chose to settle in Coastopolis, however, the FA gets a summons about as often as she does birthday cards. Well, as often as she votes for members of Congress, anyway.
She has now done her duty to her New York compatriots for the next eight years, a task she takes seriously. The Free Agent recognizes that trial by jury is the one Constitutional right it costs time and money to exercise, and she knows that when her many powerful enemies figure out how to charge her with sedition, it will be a jury of her peers who can set her free.
On the other hand, a jury summons can feel more like conscription into the drug war, as was the case this week, when her defendant, ‘Joe K’, was accused of possession of a pistol and a Ziploc® bag of marijuana.
The fine folks of FIJA were not available to pass out information on jury nullification, but Kings County spilled the beans, probably inadvertently. A video shown in the jury corral depicts the trial of William Penn, accused of disturbing the peace. Despite direct instruction from the judge, Penn’s jury repeatedly voted him not guilty. The judge sent Penn, his co-defendant and the jurors all to jail, but the jurors were freed on a writ of habeas corpus. The moral, according to the movie’s narrator, is that we can’t be punished for our verdict.
But Penn’s story, known as Bushel’s Case, is more famous as an exemplar of jury nullification. Penn was probably guilty under the law as written, but his jury stood between the tyranny of the crown trying to suppress religious practice and their countryman. (And if you’ve ever been to a Quaker service, you know there is no more peaceable assemblage. The service may go for hours without a word being spoken.) The Free Agent cackled inwardly, believing The People could not object to her discussing nullification in deliberations in the context of the court’s own movie.
The other chapter in legal history in the video described medieval trial by ordeal, in this case, a fellow accused of witchcraft was thrown into the river and sank, proving his innocence. (The Free Agent got to thinking that a someone must have inferred a connection between obesity and witchcraft following a few of these dowsings.)
The Free Agent got to musing, how did the accused witch’s experience of his trial compare with Joe K’s?
The medieval witch probably didn’t know what he’d done wrong until he was accused. Joe K. (for argument’s sake, let’s assume that he did what he was accused of) knows what he did was illegal. The accused witch probably doesn’t believe was doing anything to harm his community, but he believes that the trial will reveal the truth. “I wonder if I am a witch? This will be interesting,” he might think as he sinks beneath the current. Joe K’s perception, on the other hand, has to be one of injustice. He didn’t injure anyone, his community demands his services, and he would have weighed the risk of not being able to defend himself versus the possible penalty for carrying a gun, engaging, as he does, in a cash business. And he knows many other people have done exactly what he did without consequence.
If the witch sinks, assuming he’s resuscitated in time, he and the village are all satisfied with the triumph of justice. As for Joe K., well, The Free Agent was not selected to serve on his jury. He may be convicted, but he is not guilty.