Fully Informed Jury Association

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Jury Nullification | 10 Nov 2013

-Understand What Is At Stake When Considering Jury Nullification

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Cannabis_sativa_(Köhler)Often we hear in the FIJA office from or about jurors who initially voted Not Guilty, but changed their vote to Guilty because they couldn’t convince the other jurors. This change of vote is often associated with the holdout juror not wanting to waste their own time any longer. Perhaps they wish to get home for dinner, not miss the football game or concert to which they have tickets, they worry about work piling up in the office in their absence, etc.

Before voting Guilty, jurors should be fully aware of what is at stake for the person they are about to convict. It’s not a simple matter of being locked up in a dorm room where the prisoner is taken care of as a human being. Prisons and even jails can be extremely punishing environments- more punishing than they are billed to the public as by prison proponents and often more punishing than is warranted by a given offense.

As an example, consider the case of Michael Saffioti. Saffioti failed to make a court date regarding a misdemeanor pot offense and was jailed. In jail he was fed something that triggered a life-threatening food allergy, which went unaddressed by corrections officers. A little over an hour later, he was dead.

Because of 12 individuals’ Guilty votes, or one person’s failure to maintain a Not Guilty vote and hang the jury, Saffioti received a de facto death sentence for a misdemeanor pot violation. Had one juror considered and opted to exercise jury nullification, this man would be alive today. Here is the even uglier irony of the situation: 4 months later, his offense would be legalized in Washington state. Had one single person hung the jury, it is likely that his case would have been abandoned by prosecutors given the change in the law.

Today’s Drug War Outrage: Man Dies In Jail Cell After Misdemeanor Pot Offense

Saffioti’s food allergies were apparently so severe that he was sometimes called “bubble boy.” His condition required constant attention. According to his mother, the knowledge that the smallest break in vigilance could result in his death caused Saffioti a lot of anxiety. Understandably so. She says he smoked pot to help relieve that anxiety. As both Greenfield and Vankin point out, the cruel irony here is that four months after Saffioti’s death, recreational pot was legalized in Washington state.

The story is reminiscent of the Jonathan Magbie tragedy. Magbie was a quadriplegic who was allowed to die in a Washington, D.C. jail cell while serving a 10-day sentence for possession of pot. He was jailed despite no prior convictions, and in spite of his need of constant care to stay alive. According to his mother, Magbie smoked pot to treat the effects of his paralyzation. Medical pot is now legal in D.C., and the city looks poised to at least decriminalize pot for recreational use, if not legalize it outright.

Our rumbling stomachs, our social events, our workplaces- these all pale in comparison to the possible damage done to another human being, up to and including his death, if knuckle under to peer pressure during jury deliberations. If our consciences tell us that a just verdict is Not Guilty, we must summon the fortitude and resolve to maintain that vote even if we can’t convince others to agree with us. A hung jury is better for the defendant than a Guilty verdict, as this tragedy clearly shows.

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