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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification & Jury Rights Day | 05 Sep 2014

-7 Films for Jury Rights Day

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JRD_dkblue_square_446x444For more than 20 years since founding it in 1991, the Fully Informed Jury Association has celebrated Jury Rights Day as our signature event on September 5 each year. Jury Rights Day commemorates the conscientious acquittal of William Penn, who stood trial in 1670 for violating England’s Conventicle Act by publicly preaching the Quaker religion. Although ordered to do so by the judge in the case and despite being imprisoned without food and water, jurors in this case steadfastly refused to convict Penn. A higher court later ruled with regard to this case that jurors could not be punished for their verdict.

This landmark case firmly grounded in English common law rights that were carried overseas by the colonists, including freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, as well as the fundamental right of jurors to render a general verdict based on conscience, including setting aside the law when a just verdict requires it. This is most commonly known as jury nullification, and it is the right of all jurors in every court in our country to exercise it to uphold justice still today.

Our first Jury Rights Day was marked by activists across the country spending an hour outside their local courthouses distributing FIJA’s educational literature and answering questions to fully inform as many people as possible. This year we have more than 30 events taking place nationwide to help ensure that everyone has access to fully informed jurors when they need them. If you are not able to make it out to one of these outreach events, or perhaps after you attend one, why not invite a few friends over to celebrate with a movie night? Here are seven films that would be timely for a Jury Rights Day screening, wrapping up with the one that I will be watching this Jury Rights Day.

The Classics
Courageous Mr. Penn/Penn of Pennsylvania
Originally titled Penn of Pennsylvania, this 1940s era black-and-white historical drama starring Clifford Evans and Deborah Kerr depicts the life of William Penn through the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania, including his famous 1670 trial, which is commemorated by Jury Rights Day. It is based on C.E. Vulliamy’s biography of Penn and reportedly was produced as a piece of British propaganda along with a series of other historical dramas to persuade the United States to join Britain in World War II.

I would like to be able to recommend this film wholeheartedly as the quintessential Jury Rights Day flick. But while it is adequate in covering the main points of Penn’s life, especially those related to Jury Rights Day, it falls rather short of what it could be, with characters who seem more like caricatures and a plot that plods along more as if churning out a stream of facts than telling a story. Nonetheless, it is rated 6.2 out of 10 by 65 IMDB users. It’s not unwatchable, and its plot is most apt for Jury Rights Day. If you don’t know the story of William Penn, it will certainly be informative.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Watch the first ten minutes of the film:

Twelve Angry Men
Nominated for 3 Academy Awards, the classic 1957 film Twelve Angry Men is probably the most well known jury-related film. It consistently ranks on lists of the top films of all time. Lone holdout Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, refuses to be rushed into rubber-stamping the prosecution of the defendant whose very life rests in the jury’s hands.

This film has some great lessons for potential jurors, including the intensity of the psychology and interpersonal dynamics during deliberations, the need to be skeptical of the prosecution’s case, the gravity of what is at stake for the defendant as compared to the minor inconveniences for jurors, and so on. The story told in this film is an excellent illustration of the message on FIJA’s home page that:
“The primary function of the independent juror is not, as many think, to dispense punishment to fellow citizens accused of breaking various laws, but rather to protect fellow citizens from tyrannical abuses of power by government.”

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and YouTube.

View the trailer:

The Ox-Bow Incident
Make it a Henry Fonda double feature by pairing Twelve Angry Men with the Academy Award-nominated 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident, a film adaptation of the Walter Van Tilberg Clark novel of the same name. There is no jury in this movie; rather, it is a film about just the opposite situation—the sort of “justice” that is delivered at the hands of an emotionally inflamed mob without the conscientious consideration of a jury. It makes a particularly stunning counterpoint shown back to back with Twelve Angry Men.

The film winds up with a stirring and timeless monologue on the law and conscience delivered by Henry Fonda. It is itself worth the price of admission and reads in part:
“Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people have ever found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity.”

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

View the trailer:


The Modern Dramas
A Time to Kill
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sandra Bullock, this film adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel tells of the trial of a black man in Mississippi accused of murdering two white men who brutally raped and tried to kill his 10-year-old daughter. While some attempt is made by the defense to argue that the defendant was temporarily insane when he killed these men, it is presented more as something with which to give the jury an out rather than a defense that anyone actually believes. Rather, this is the story of a potential jury nullification case.

Usually when people think of jury nullification, they tend to envision the most obvious sorts of cases for conscientious acquittal—victimless offenses in which the state is trying to punish people who may have offended others’ sensibilities through their actions but who have not actually harmed anyone else or their property. In A Time to Kill, we are challenged to consider one of the tougher types of jury nullification cases in which the jury is asked to forgive someone who committed a real crime, but one with extenuating circumstances that might make strictly enforcing the law unjust.

Such cases are less common in real life, but are not unheard of. A few years ago, a jury acquitted a man who openly admitted to punching an elderly priest. In that case, the defendant said that he had only intended to confront the priest about sexual abuse he had inflicted on the man in his childhood, but things got heated and he lost control. A Time to Kill can open a conversation about the delicate balance between justice and mercy that jurors are asked to strike in unusual cases like these.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video and YouTube.

View the trailer:

American Violet
American Violet is a 2009 dramatization of the real life story of Regina Kelly, winner of the ACLU’s Roger N. Baldwin Award for Liberty and one of scores of people arrested and charged in mass sweeps of poor neighborhoods, largely populated by people of color, in the town of Hearne, Texas. Falsely accused of being involved in drug trade, protagonist Dee Roberts is pressured to take a plea bargain even though she has done nothing wrong. Instead, she risks her freedom and her family and opts to fight back against the malicious and racist prosecutor’s office with the help of the ACLU not only in criminal court, but civil court as well.

This film is not so much about jury rights as it is a way to sensitize us all before we serve as jurors to the high pressure tactics used by prosecutors to get convictions, even against innocent people. When we sit on a criminal jury, we should have some idea of the dramatic odds against the defendant even being in the same room with us to begin with. More than 90% of criminal cases are settled without a jury, often with defendants pressured into plea bargains with threats ranging from more and more charges being piled up until they crack to the possibility of losing their kids forever. If they lose at trial, defendants may see prosecutors requesting particularly harsh penalties based in part on their assertion of their Constitutionally-guaranteed right to trial by jury, with the rationale that asking for a jury trial is evidence that they are not sufficiently remorseful about their offense to deserve mercy.

Jurors are often unhappy to be stuck in court being treated as herd animals and getting a pittance in compensation. Perhaps they were going on vacation this weekend. Or they don’t want to miss anymore work and have to catch up on it. Maybe there is a football game they want to get out of court in time to see. They may be in a hurry to do whatever it takes just to end the trial one way or another because it is an inconvenience. But I assure you that practically any inconvenience we face as jurors is NOTHING in comparison to the severe damage we can inflict in the lives of not only the defendant, but also the defendant’s loved ones and community if we do not give due consideration to our role in judging the facts of a case as well as the fairness of the law as it is applied in the case before us. American Violet helps illuminate just what is at stake.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video and YouTube.

View the trailer:


The Documentaries
Bidder 70
In 2008 Tim DeChristopher disrupted a highly disputed Bureau of Land Management auction open only to certain corporate bidders for oil and gas leases, which the federal government itself would later invalidate as unlawful, of 116 parcels of public land in Utah’s red rock country. Outside the building where the auction was held, he felt that his efforts to stop it were insufficient so he ventured inside to see what more he could do. There he was invited to register as bidder 70 in the auction and won several parcels before the auction was shut down. Although it would later be invalidated as an illegal auction, DeChristopher would nonetheless be indicted for his conscientious act of civil disobedience. He pleaded Not Guilty to two victimless felony counts for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making false statements, choosing to take his case before a jury in hopes that they would consult their consciences and acquit him.

The term “kangaroo court” would not be too strong for this trial. The defense was:
-forbidden from arguing a necessity defense that DeChristopher was faced with choosing between two evils and that his actions resulted in the lesser of the two to avoid imminent harm where no legal alternative was available,
-forbidden from informing the jury that the lease auction itself was deemed unlawful,
-forbidden from informing the jury that DeChristopher had raised sufficient funds for an initial payment to the BLM (which the BLM refused to accept),
-forbidden from presenting a case to the jury that DeChristopher’s motives were grounded in his moral convictions, and
-forbidden from informing the jury about other cases in which bidders did not pay for pay for oil leases they won but were not prosecuted the way DeChristopher was selectively prosecuted.

Bidder 70 includes quite a bit of material explaining how and why the role of the independent jury was so shamelessly circumvented by the prosecutor and judge. Included on the DVD but not in any of the streaming versions I found is a post-theatrical opening question and answer session with DeChristopher. This is worth looking up on YouTube as DeChristopher gets into great detail on why the prosecutor was desperate to exclude jurors who might have been influenced by FIJA literature that was being distributed outside the courthouse. In Q&A DeChristopher makes the point that:
“I saw this huge power of conscience because at the same time I saw that any atrocity would be possible if people let go of their conscience, I also saw the U.S. attorney freaking out about this notion. He was representing the United States of America. He had the entire power of the United States behind him. That’s the power he represented, and he felt vulnerable to the power of citizens using their conscience. He felt like citizens exercising their conscience, when exercising their moral duties, that could undermine all the power that he represented. And so it was like these two extremes hinging on the power of conscience—that when people let go of their own moral agency, any atrocity was possible, but when people held onto their moral agency and had faith in the power of their conscience, that there was no power and no institution which couldn’t be affected by that.”
Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sy-2WAvAHo

I often come across people who seem to want to have the courage to nullify unjust prosecutions, but who seem unwilling to do it without the government’s clear stamp of approval on jurors refusing to enforce the government’s own laws. To quote one of my favorite science fiction outlaws, Malcolm Reynolds, “That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.” There is just no incentive for government to give its subjects permission to disobey or refuse to enforce its laws. And that is why we have juries. They are to be an independent body that is not merely an agent of government but an outside arbiter of facts and law. There are many valuable words of wisdom in both the movie and the additional Q&A session about the need for jurors to act from conscience rather than abandoning their moral compass and mindlessly doing the bidding of the government.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and YouTube.

View the trailer:

After you see the film, come back and check out the Q&A session post-NYC theatrical opening:

The Camden 28
“What do you do when a child’s on fire? We saw children on fire. What do you do when a child’s on fire in a war that was a mistake? What do you do? Like write a letter?” With these questions, Father Michael Doyle opens the documentary entitled The Camden 28. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan called this trial “one of the great trials of the 20th Century.” But have you heard of the 1973 trial of the Camden 28 Vietnam War protesters who broke into a draft office to destroy files of those being called up to fight in Vietnam? Most people have never heard of this remarkable case that began with every defendant openly affirming to their jury that they committed the acts of which they were accused and ended in mass acquittals on all charges against them.

This Anthony Giacchino film draws on historical documentation as well as modern day interviews of some of those involved in the Camden 28 trial to tell the story of the first anti-war trial of the Vietnam era to result in jury nullifications. Giacchino skillfully weaves together the intricate threads of this story from the planning and execution of this peace action, to its connections to other peace actions of the era such as the infamous Media, Pennsylvania burglary that exposed the FBI’s COINTELPRO agenda, to the mysterious informant who played a dramatic and surprising role in both their capture and the case in court.

The trial of the Camden 28 was remarkable not only in the overwhelming message sent by the jury through its Not Guilty verdicts, but also in the wide latitude allowed by the judge to tell the story as the jury needed to hear it in order to come to their verdicts. It is clear from motions in limine in modern day Plowshares trials of anti-war activists that prosecutors have studied the Camden 28 trial and know what information they must prevent the jury from having access to in order to secure convictions in these types of cases.

The Camden 28 is the film that I will be watching this Jury Rights Day. It is nothing short of a revelation of how our jury system was meant to work, and of how a healthy jury system operates. If you had told me a decade ago that I would one day be passionate about jury rights, I’d have thought you were off your rocker. But to see in action the extraordinary power of a few ordinary people to protect human rights and human life, to see their power to help steer the course of history away from a trajectory of great injustice, to know that we once had this and could again practically overnight if we would each claim our right of conscience and exercise it—that is what makes me passionate about juries, and I hope that it does you as well.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.

Trailer:

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