How to Do (or not) Your Duty



Do you want to know how to get out of jury duty?

This is an almost sure fire way.

Ironically, it stems from a desire to ensure that true justice is done.

I can just about guarantee that when you get called for jury duty, the judge will ask you to swear to obey his exact instructions and find a verdict based only on the evidence that is presented to you, no matter what your opinion of the law or circumstances might be. This has been exactly my experience.

Can you do this? Will you swear to find a verdict, NO MATTER WHAT THE CIRCUMSTANCES ARE, based only on the instructions of the judge and the facts presented to you? I hope not.

Stretch you imagination just a little bit, and imagine a girl who is sexually abused by her father. Her mother has divorced him and moved far away, and she is afraid that her father's attentions will be turned to her little sister. Her father is an abusive alcoholic, and she fears him. She doesn't know where to turn, or who would believe her, and she is afraid of what he might do to her, or worse, to her sister. After years, as her fears and concerns for her sister build, she comes to a horrible conclusion: she must kill him. Imagine her trial, where the abuse is questioned. Can she prove she was abused? Of course not. A juror (it only takes one) believes her, but the judge has instructed the jury to stick to the facts ONLY. In fact, she did murder her father. The juror feels that "her hands are tied by the law", and so the jury returns a verdict of guilty, of first degree murder. This is the case of Stacy Lennart, and in Missouri, where this happened, there is a mandatory sentence of life without parole for first degree murder. The judge in the case even thinks that the sentence is excessive, but his hands too, are "tied by the law". Her story was featured on Oprah and you can read the details there. In 2009, outgoing Missouri Governor Matt Blunt commuted her sentence, and that of another woman convicted under similar circumstances. Lannert's new sentence of 20 years made her eligible for immediate conditional release. She was released on January 16, 2009 - after serving 18 years.

I can cite other examples, and it isn't hard to imagine them. Think of the outrageous fines and prison sentences given during the height of the "war on drugs" for even the smallest of offenses.

Fortunately, the juror's hands aren't really tied. There is a legal precept called "jury veto", and it states that a jury has the right (obligation, even) to return a "not guilty" verdict when a law is being unjustly applied. It goes back past the beginning of our country's legal system, to the courts of England. It is the last balance, a power held by the people, in our government's system of checks and balances. But don't take my word for it, check it out for yourself. Read about it on wikipedia or do a search on Google for "jury veto" and read all about it. And, think about this: Shouldn't it work that way? Isn't the jury there to make sure justice is done? Hopefully I have planted a seed in you, if you didn't already think this way. Do you really believe in "one size fits all" laws? Aren't there exceptions to every rule? Isn't your job, not just as a juror or as a citizen, but as a human being, to DO WHAT IS RIGHT?

If you have doubts, or think what I'm describing isn't legal, then take a look at some background from no less a source than the library of congress: Trial by Jury

And finally a quote from Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor:

"You know the Second Circuit has an opinion that basically says that juries should never be instructed about jury nullification and that any instruction that would suggest it is wrong. I hewed very closely to the Second Circuit line for many, many years. As Iíve grown more in the system and watching it, Iím not so sure that thatís right. Think about what juries did during the civil rights movement. If it werenít for jury nullification, we would have many civil rights individuals who would be convicted felons or otherwise for things that today we think are protected by the First Amendment. There is a place, I think, for jury nullification. Finding the balance of that and the role that a judge should or should not play in advising juries about that is, I think, a different thing. But I think that we needóyouíre right. Our forefathers did not believe that juries necessarily always got it right, but it was, I think what they believed is that the jury getting it wrong, was better than the crown getting it wrong." [from A Conversation with Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 8 February 2016, comment begins at approximately 26 minutes]

If you feel as I do (that it is more important to do what is right than what is lawful), then tell the judge "NO, I cannot swear to do that because I have a higher obligation to do what is right and just than to follow the law." You will almost certainly be kicked off the jury, but your fellow jurors will start thinking, and the message will spread.

Therefore, I ask you to again to forward this on, send everyone you know the link, or copy it into an email. Thankfully, most trials aren't the type where one would have to worry about whether the application of the law is just, but the more people who know about this, the better chance we have to make a difference, to prevent injustice.

Kind Regards,
Aerik Sylvan