To the Editor
Please publish in full and with attribution.
The Human Right to Conscience
Iloilo Jones, Executive Director, Fully Informed Jury Association
Recently, making recommendations on certain ballot measures, Montana Human Rights network (MHRN) sent this message:
“Sponsored by Darby’s Frank Kucera, CI-104 would require that juries be told that they can judge the law when reaching verdicts. This idea is known as “jury nullification,” and it has been promoted for years by the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA). FIJA claims that a jury has the right to “judge both the law and the evidence in the case before it.” In essence, FIJA encourages juries to ignore laws they don’t like and set defendants free regardless of evidence. FIJA and jury nullification have been favorites of the “patriot” movement for years. The Network opposes CI-104.”
As the Executive Director of the Fully Informed Jury Association, I am compelled to ask why MHRN would oppose a measure to remind jurors of their Human Right to consult their own conscience when rendering a verdict. Jurors have done so in many cases:
• In England, the William Penn case established both the right of jurors to render a verdict based on conscience, and the right to practice the religion of one’s choice;
• In the colonies, the Zenger case established the right of jurors to render a verdict in direct opposition to oppressive laws, and the right to freedom of the press;
• In the era of slavery, many cases emphasized the right of jurors, especially Quaker jurors, to refuse to punish any person who helped a slave to escape, although the Fugitive Slave Act made such assistance a crime. Jurors simply refused to convict;
• During prohibition, jurors refused to convict those buying or selling alcohol;
• During the Viet Nam era, jurors refused to convict conscientious objectors and draft resisters;
• Today, jurors are refusing to convict patients who use medical marijuana.
As a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Civil Rights worker, and a long-time advocate of both peace and the tradition of peaceful deliberations before a jury of one’s peers, I am compelled to ask: Why is MHRN opposed to the traditional and legal right of jurors to know of their obligation to render a true verdict after a careful examination of both the law and the facts of any case where a jury is seated? Why attempt to tarnish the good name of FIJA by an association with another organization, albeit one I find harmless, and sometimes helpful? Is it because FIJA’s educational efforts remind everyone of the significant role of the juror in protecting and securing the human rights of all peoples, in all nations, in every instance, where jurors are found? Is it because the traditional role of jurors denies kings and politicians a portion of the power they covet?
FIJA has long worked with human rights organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Council On Racial Equality, Anti-Nuclear Policy, Gun Owners of America, Americans for Safe Access, and many more.
It remains the mission of FIJA to educate everyone on the role of the juror to protect the Human Rights of all persons. This has been the role of the jury, as codified in the Magna Carta, since well before this Nation was founded. I would hope to see it as an international standard of the justice process.
There has always been a tension between governments and the people who live under that government–whether kings or politicians are running the government–for control on one hand, and freedom on the other. Juries have long been an integral part of the justice system to ensure that no Human Rights are violated–either under bad laws or through misapplication of a good law–when an individual is brought to trial.
It is a common good that all jurors be reminded of their right to consider the fairness of laws. Juror’s decisions of conscience constitute a peaceful means to inform government of community displeasure with bad laws. Jurors protect harmless, productive people from government mistakes and predations.
We are fortunate, then, that (MHRN) was not present to stop the jury, in the William Penn trial, from defending freedom of religion.
We are fortunate that jurors who refused to convict during the Salem Witch trials weren’t influenced by MHRN. We are fortunate that MHRN wasn’t around to stop the jury from defending freedom of the press in the Zenger case, or to stop juries from refusing to enforce slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act.
We are fortunate that jurors, knowing their rights, anticipated and set a higher standard of tolerance and individual rights than have many laws imposed by kings or politicians. We are fortunate to have a tradition of conscientious, peaceful jurors, who objected to oppressive, racist, and unjust laws –and refused to enforce those laws. Historically, jurors have been at the vanguard of Human Rights, refusing to enforce bad laws.
How could any right-thinking Human Rights worker possibly be against such peaceful measures to ensure equal justice for all?
For Justice and Liberty for All,
Iloilo Jones, Executive Director
Fully Informed Jury Association
PO Box 5570
Helena, MT 59604