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FIJA in the News & Function of Juries & Jurors Doing Justice & Jury Nullification | 02 Jan 2011

Missoula District Court: Pot case ‘mutiny’ leaves ripples for other drug cases

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Missoula District Court: Pot case ‘mutiny’ leaves ripples for other drug cases

But what happened so publicly in Missoula has been going on quietly in black communities for years, according to Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor who is a professor and associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Law.

“It happens all of the time in the Bronx, the District of Columbia, Oakland – mostly in districts with a majority of people of color,” said Butler, who explored the issue in his book, “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” and on a “60 Minutes” interview last year.

“We (as prosecutors) were told that jurors thought drug cases were selectively prosecuted against blacks and didn’t want to send another black man to jail,” especially for minor offenses, said Butler.

U.S. Justice Department statistics show that nationwide in 2008, nearly 22 percent of prisoners under state jurisdiction for drug crimes were black, compared to only 14 percent who were white. Drug offenses comprised the largest category for which African-Americans were incarcerated, as opposed to property crimes such as burglary and fraud for white people.

“Martin Luther King” jurors, Butler calls those who nullify cases. “They would engage in strategic jury nullification designed to safely reduce the number of people in prison for non-violent drug crimes, and to send the message that ‘we the people’ ain’t gonna take it anymore,” Butler wrote in Prison Legal News last year.

Jury nullification – when a jury opts for acquittal regardless of evidence – isn’t quite what happened here because the jury hadn’t actually been seated.

Still, Butler said what happened in Missoula fits into what he calls “Nullification 2.0,” when such protests move beyond race into larger philosophical disagreements with the law.

“One of the most common questions I’d get would be from white people wondering, ‘Why can’t white people use nullification?’ ” said Butler. “When I heard about this case in Missoula, I thought, ‘This is exactly what I was talking about.’ “

Cornell, the defendant in the Missoula case, is black; members of the jury pool were white.

Iloilo Marguerite Jones, executive director of the Montana-based national Fully Informed Jury Association, a jury empowerment group, called the Missoula jury pool’s action “elegant, honest and forthright.”

“I hope that there will be a blossoming, a fluorescence of awareness that our government officials must prioritize how they spend our tax dollars,” she said.

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