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September 5th – Jury Rights Day

Activists Across the Nation Celebrate Jury Rights Day on September 5

Fully Informed Jury Association

On Thursday, September 5, 2013, activists across the country will celebrate Jury Rights Day, marking the 343rd anniversary of the day when jurors refused to convict William Penn of violating England’s Conventicle Acts, despite clear evidence that he acted illegally by preaching a Quaker sermon. In refusing to convict Penn, the jurors refused to enforce what they knew to be an unjust law. This is known as jury nullification or conscientious acquittal.

For their refusal to obey the judge’s instruction to find Penn guilty, the judge sent four of Penn’s jurors to prison for nine weeks. Their later release and exoneration established forever the English and American doctrine that it is the right and responsibility of all jurors to decide matters of law and fact in any case before them. The jurors’ decision in the Penn case also provided a basis for our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, and peaceable assembly.

“In today’s courtrooms, jurors are typically misinformed by judges, who tell them that they are to enforce the law as the judge interprets it regardless of their conscientious objections or common sense. Yet even today there are still independent jurors who find their ways onto juries, refuse to compromise their consciences to the dictates of an intimidating authority figure, and steadfastly refuse to enforce unjust laws or to be complicit in malicious prosecutions,” says Fully Informed Jury Association National Coordinator Kirsten Tynan. “We seek to inform everyone of the juror’s critical role as the last line of defense for people in our communities being maliciously prosecuted under unjust laws by overzealous government prosecutors and court officials.”

America’s founders accepted the common law principle of jury nullification as an important safeguard for a free society–a test that all laws must pass. They intended for all matters brought to the courts to be considered by a jury of independent, free individuals, who were not beholden to the courts or government, and who would freely render a verdict based on justice even if in direct opposition to the courts and the law. The Sixth and Seventh Amendments are included in the Bill of Rights to guarantee that every person brought to trial has the benefit of the protection of a jury.

Jury nullification has been used throughout history to “nullify” unpopular and unjust laws, from laws against free speech to the Fugitive Slave Acts to Prohibition. Modern juries have protected their communities by refusing to convict individuals prosecuted for victimless licensing violations in cases related to raw milk, for conveying political messages in chalk on public sidewalks, for victimless violations of gun regulations inadvertently committed when crossing state lines, for victimless cases of medical and recreational use of drugs, and much more.

“As incentives for prosecution expand–from prosecutors building profitable careers on the backs of peaceful people they maliciously prosecute, to courts creating a captive supply of cheap labor in overcrowded prisons–it is critical for those accused by the state to have access to juries composed of fully informed jurors,” says Tynan.

An integral part of our judicial system, jury nullification serves as one of the “checks and balances” required by a free society. Individual jurors each have the power to stop an unjust prosecution by refusing to convict, yet most jurors today are unaware of or explicitly misinformed about this right today. This lack of awareness has contributed greatly to the decline of the authority of the jury in our court system. FIJA seeks to educate everyone about the traditional, legal authority of the juror to refuse to enforce unjust laws and the role of the fully informed juror in protecting human rights.

On and around Jury Rights Day this September 5, private groups and individuals across the nation will inform their communities of the juror’s right and duty to set aside the law when a just verdict requires it. They will hand out educational literature at courthouses and other locations, provide interviews, host outreach tables and community events, publish columns, send letters to their local newspapers, and more to encourage people to learn more about the rights and responsibilities of jury service, as well as to encourage those on trial to demand their right to a trial by jury. New Hampshire Governor Maggie Wood Hassan has signed a proclamation declaring September 5 this year as Jury Appreciation Day, which is particularly apt given the state’s passage in 2012 of a law requiring that the defense be allowed to argue jury nullification directly to the jury. A history of Jury Rights Day can be found on FIJA’s website along with a listing of local Jury Rights Day 2013 events around the country.

Contact Information:
Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA)
(406) 442-7800
P.O. Box 5570
Helena, MT 59604-5570