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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification | 28 May 2014

-Mandatory Minimums Eviscerate Right to Trial by Jury

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LawBooksFIJA does not support or oppose any legislative proposal, political candidate, or political party. We present this information for educational purposes only.

Thanks to Families for Mandatory Minimums sharing this article, which details a Pennsylvania proposal by a current Pennsylvania legislator, who is also an ex-prosecutor, that would redistribute even more power from juries into the hands of the prosecutor’s office. Here are some of the highlights of the bill:

Pa. lawmaker pushes for mandatory minimum sentences for convicted felons caught with guns

The proposed legislation would expand the list of gun crimes eligible for mandatory minimum prison sentences, including establishing a five-year, mandatory, minimum penalty for the illegal possession of firearms by individuals prohibited from doing so because of prior convictions, as mandated by existing state law.

The second, and more contentious, aspect of the bill is that it would amend the sentencing code to classify illegal firearm possession, use, manufacture, control, sale or transfer by prohibited individuals (as defined in Title 18, Section 6105 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code) as a crime of violence, putting it on the established list of approximately two dozen offenses that includes third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, rape, sexual assault, burglary, robbery, incest, kidnapping, human trafficking, arson and more.

Therefore, conviction on an illegal firearms possession charge would trigger an automatic five-year minimum sentence. And, just as the Sentencing Code already dictates for other crimes of violence (Pennsylvania’s so-called “Three-Strikes Rule”), a second such conviction would result in a 10-year minimum sentence, and the third or subsequent conviction would mean a minimum of 25 years and, the law states, “the court may, if it determines that 25 years of total confinement is insufficient to protect the public safety, sentence the offender to life imprisonment without parole”.

Dr. Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at D.C.-based The Sentencing Project, and Greg Newburn, a project director with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, explain the effects of mandatory minimum schemes on our Constitutionally-guaranteed right to trial by jury provided for in the Sixth Amendment:

Increased prosecutorial power is a concern to Ghandnoosh, who says Stephens’ proposed legislation further shifts discretion and power from judges to prosecutors, who then control the decision whether or not to charge individuals with crimes that carry mandatory minimum penalties and are thus enabled to “threaten people with really large sentences in order to negotiate deals with them” to win convictions without ever having to go to trial.

And that, Newburn insists, would eviscerate the Sixth Amendment. “We have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial and what these (mandatory minimums) are saying is, we’re going to stack the deck so heavily against the defendant ahead of time that they simply can’t opt for that fundamental right unless they want to risk 25 years in prison,” he says. “There’s something inherently wrong about that to me.”

Typically, judges and prosecutors hide from jurors the potential penalty on the table in the case they are hearing. Judges tell jurors that the penalty is of no concern to them and that they are merely to decide whether or not the law was violated. They can and will punish jurors who do their own research to learn about the potential penalty at stake, keeping jurors effectively in the dark about such information that is relevant to delivering a just verdict. They do not want jurors to know when an egregiously unjust punishment is on the table because they might opt to conscientiously acquit by jury nullification.

Because the courts often withhold pertinent information about sentencing, jurors often are left regretting their verdicts when they realize that the punishment is far more than they ever intended and far more than justice allows, such as in the cases of Richard Paey and Cecily McMillan. Defense attorneys and their clients are well aware of this standard practice that substantially tilts the playing field in favor of the prosecutor, and prosecutors are able to use this and their nullification power to drop charges at their own discretion to bully defendants into forfeiting their right to trial by jury and the protections that come with it.

We have previously talked about how prosecutors have amassed immense power to convict without pesky juries making it tough for them. It is important for jurors to understand as they deliberate over a case that convicting on a charge that common sense tells them should have a small or no penalty, such as victimless offenses of harmlessly possessing something in violation of the law, may actually trigger a dramatically unjust penalty due to mandatory minimums, three strikes schemes, and so on. Jurors will not be informed of this ahead of time by the court, and in fact, will be told that it is none of their business. If they are not aware before they go into the courtroom of these kinds of schemes, they will have difficulty in delivering a just verdict.

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