Fully Informed Jury Association

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Media Releases | 14 Mar 2013

-FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Prosecutors Coerce Defendants to Forfeit Right to Trial by Jury


FIJA Logo with URLMarch 14, 2013

Prosecutors Coerce Defendants to Forfeit Right to Trial by Jury

CONTACT: (406) 442-7800; aji@fija.org

Helena, MT—Elliot R. Peters, attorney for the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz, alleges prosecutorial misconduct by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Heyman in a letter submitted to the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility. Among the grievances he lists, Peters alleges that Heyman “appears to have abused his discretion when he attempted to coerce Mr. Swartz into foregoing his right to a trial by pleading guilty. Specifically, AUSA Heyman offered Mr. Swartz four to six months in prison for a guilty plea, while threatening to seek over seven years in prison if Mr. Swartz chose to go to trial.”

“Government employees are threatening individuals—including those who have not been found guilty, but who have only been called to trial—with additional punishment if they exercise their human right to due process of trial by jury,” said FIJA Director Iloilo Jones. “That’s a very significant and damning statement. The message from government prosecutors is that ‘If you exercise your human rights, we will punish you severely for doing so. And either way we will put shackles on you, but if you cooperate, we won’t put them on your feet, only your hands.’ We are moving from a land of Law to a land of legally sanctioned retribution by government against those who exercise their right to trial by a jury of their peers. The message is clear: demand your right to a jury trial and be punished for your courage.”

Unfortunately, prosecutorial coercion is a common tactic used against defendants. When defendants refuse to give up their rights and protections under the law, they are often threatened with—and ultimately sentenced to—more harsh punishment than those who waive their rights and protections and cooperate with government.

This was evident in another recent case in the national spotlight—the case of Montana medical marijuana provider Chris Williams. Williams was one of the only defendants caught up in the federal government’s massive sweep of medical marijuana states who insisted on exercising his right to trial by jury. Williams, who did not accept a pre-trial plea bargain, was egregiously overcharged. He was ultimately convicted of 8 victimless offenses with a total mandatory minimum sentence of more than 80 years in prison—far more than many violent criminals such as rapists and murderers face.

Clearly the prosecutor did not consider such a harsh sentence necessary as, in a highly unusual move, he offered Williams increasingly lenient post-conviction plea agreements if Williams would waive his right to appeal. Williams finally accepted a deal under duress in which the government dropped 6 of the 8 charges against him, leaving him at risk of a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years.

Williams was ultimately sentenced to 5 years in prison plus time served. Two of his partners, who accepted plea bargains in exchange for testifying against Williams, were sentenced to probation with no incarceration. According to Williams’ attorney, the mean sentence for other defendants in the state who agreed to plea bargains was 18 months. Prosecuting attorney Joseph Thaggard in this case sought a much harsher sentence of 10 years for Chris Williams, citing in his sentencing recommendation memo Williams’ exercise of his Constitutionally guaranteed human right to trial by jury as evidence that Williams was not sufficiently repentant.

“Prosecutors have lost sight of their responsibility to restore justice and balance in our communities and instead focus increasingly on retribution against those who don’t cooperate, often for their own political or career advancement. FIJA encourages everyone to become fully informed about, and to reintegrate into our culture common knowledge of, the traditional role of the independent juror to refuse to enforce unjust laws and malicious prosecutions. As a juror, your vote is your veto,” said FIJA National Coordinator Kirsten Tynan. “Defendants must have a strong expectation of pleading their cases before fully informed, independent jurors who will not simply rubber stamp the conclusions to which they are led by prosecutors and judges. Prosecutorial bullying will become less effective in subverting fairness and due process as defendants’ confidence in getting a fair trial is restored.”

About the Fully Informed Jury Association
The Fully Informed Jury Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit association dedicated to educating the general public about their full rights, powers, and responsibilities in delivering just verdicts as trial jurors. The organization publishes and distributes educational literature and maintains a web site at FIJA.org to inform the general public of their Constitutional authority to protect human rights by refusing to enforce bad laws. FIJA encourages all jurors to consult their consciences when deliberating over a case, and to refuse to enforce any law that violates the human rights of the defendant.

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