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Jurors Doing Justice & Jury Nullification | 05 Dec 2013

-Happy Repeal Day Thanks to Jury Nullification!

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BirneyNoBeerSoldToPolicemenRepeal Day marks the anniversary of the 5 December 1933 ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing alcohol prohibition. After fewer than thirteen years, the cultural and political climate in the U.S. forced an end to the federal criminalization of numerous victimless alcohol offenses.

How did the people convey the message to the government that they were not willing to be complicit in the legalized abuse of peaceful people? In part, through jury nullification! In some jurisdictions, jurors nullified as many as 60% of alcohol violations brought before them. Defendants’ demands to exercise their rights to trial by jury resulted in courts so clogged with cases that many weren’t tried for more than a year after the alleged violations. Prosecutors turned increasingly to extremely lenient plea bargains, not at all on par with typical offers made in drug prohibition cases today, to persuade defendants to forego jury trials. But those who insisted on trials frequently won Not Guilty verdicts.

I have been scouring newspaper archives for examples of such cases, and I wanted to share with you the following snippet of a Prohibition-era article from The New York Times:

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In 1928, jurors were hauled in before a judge to explain their curious verdict in which they found defendant George Beven Not Guilty of an alcohol violation. They had been left alone in the deliberation room with about a pint of liquor as evidence. From The New York Times:

Sworn to tell the truth, the eight jurors took the stand and gave their stories as to what happened in the jury room during the three hours it took to determine the case of Beven, who was acquitted of violation of the State Prohibition act.

The jurors all admitted drinking the pint of liquor which was the prosecution’s chief exhibit against Beven. All denied it was consumed without an honorable motive. They stated it was sampled to determine whether it was of alcoholic content and actually constituted a violation of the liquor law.

I love this jury! They took their duty so seriously that first they sampled the liquor to ensure that a violation had occurred. Then, upon discovering that there was no evidence on which to base a conviction, they dutifully acquitted. These jurors showed exactly the amount of respect for the law that it was due—and that was NO RESPECT AT ALL. Throughout Prohibition, prosecutions were often treated as laughing matters as they ought to have been treated. Prosecutors were frequently embarrassed by their failure to win jurors’ Guilty votes, even when it was obvious that the law had been broken. In short, it was an exercise in humiliation for government officials, and an exercise that would not continue indefinitely. Jurors, through jury nullification, rendered alcohol violations impractical to prosecute. Their vetoes sent a strong message that contributed to the eventual repeal of Prohibition, not thirteen years after it was enacted.

Happy Repeal Day!

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