The Trial of John Peter Zenger ~ 1733
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called The NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL. This publication harshly pointed out the actions of the corrupt royal governor, WILLIAM S. COSBY. It accused the government of rigging elections and allowing the French enemy to explore New York harbor. It accused the governor of an assortment of crimes and basically labeled him an idiot. Although Zenger merely printed the articles, he was hauled into jail. The authors were anonymous, and Zenger would not name them.
In 1733, Zenger was accused of LIBEL, a legal term whose meaning is quite different for us today than it was for him. In his day it was libel when you published information that was opposed to the government. Truth or falsity were irrelevant. He never denied printing the pieces. The judge therefore felt that the verdict was never in question. Something very surprising happened, however.
When the trial began and Zenger’s new attorney began his defense, a stir fluttered through the courtroom. The most famous lawyer in the colonies, ANDREW HAMILTON of Philadelphia, stepped up to defend Zenger. Hamilton admitted that Zenger printed the charges and demanded the prosecution to prove them false. In a stirring appeal to the jury, Hamilton pleaded for his new client’s release. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” he claimed, “but the cause of liberty.” The judge ordered the jury to convict Zenger if they believed he printed the stories. But the jury returned in less than ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty.
Cheers filled the courtroom and soon spread throughout the countryside. Zenger and Hamilton were hailed as heroes. Another building block of liberty was in place.
The Trial of William Penn ~ 1670
The common-law tradition of freedom of religion and of assembly has its origins in the 1670 trial of William Penn, accused of preaching an illegal religion in Gracechurch Street, London. The jury refused to convict Penn in spite of clear evidence of guilt, because they were unwilling to brand a man a felon for worshiping God according to his own beliefs. When the court attempted to punish Penn’s jury for their act of nullification, a higher court reversed on the principle that it is only the jury, not the judge, which has the authority to decide whether a defendant is guilty.
Fugitive Slave Act ~ 1850
Jury nullification was practiced in the 1850s to protest the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act had been passed to mollify the slave owners from the South, who were otherwise threatening to secede from the Union. Across the North, local juries acquitted men accused of violating the law. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was a key supporter of the law as expressed in his famous “Seventh of March” speech. He wanted high-profile convictions.
The jury nullifications ruined his presidential aspirations and his last-ditch efforts to find a compromise between North and South. Webster led the prosecution when defendants were accused of rescuing Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner; the juries convicted none of the men. Webster tried to enforce a law that was extremely unpopular in the North, and his Whig Party passed over him again when they chose a presidential nominee in 1852.
Conscription ~ 1864 to Present
Historians often cite the Fugitive Slave Act as one of the polarizing incidents that led us into Civil War a decade later. That war also saw, on both sides, another instance of the government compelling citizens to do its bidding: the military draft. Many citizens agreed with the justice of their side’s fight in that war, but were not eager to participate in it.
The Confederacy was the first to pass conscription, in 1862, and the Union followed the next year. Most men complied, but there was resistance, most famously in New York City’s draft riots of 1864. Again, the people were happy to acquiesce to a government policy—pursuing victory in the Civil War—but looked at it more critically when asked to be the instrument of that policy.
Since that time, American government has grown in scope and power, but there are still few acts that require the average citizen to participate against his will. One exception, the military draft, became accepted as an emergency measure with the rise of mass armies in the twentieth century. Since the end of the Vietnam War, draft registration has become a formality and no one has actually been compelled to serve against his will. Some in Congress have questioned whether registration is even still necessary.
What do you do when a child’s on fire? We saw children on fire.
What, 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 words from Father Michael Doyle, the award-winning documentary film by Anthony Giacchino entitled The Camden 28 begins to tell the extraordinary story of a group of peace activists working to end the Vietnam War. In the early hours of 22 August 1971, this group of 28 including students, blue collar workers, clergy, and others, most of them would put into motion their direct action against the war. Several of them broke into a draft board office in Camden, New Jersey, and set about their work of destroying and removing draft records while others monitored the situation and advised from outside the buidling. Their goal was to shut the office down. With just a few minutes left before they planned to leave, they were accosted by FBI agents who had lain in wait, watching them work without interfering until they were given the order to intervene.
63 days after the trial began and nearly two years after their direct action the fate of the Camden 28 would be settled by their jury. On 20 May 1973, concluding an historic trial, the jury who had listened and deliberated over the case for two months declared each and every one of the defendants Not Guilty on every count against them. This jury exercised its right of jury nullification to vacate more than 100 charges en masse in this single trial.
Subsequent to this abject defeat in court, the government dropped charges against the other defendants who had been severed from this trial. Supreme Court Justice William Brendan would refer to the Camden 28 as “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” Just months after the close of the trial, the U.S. would end its military involvement in Vietnam.
In 1920, the US Constitution was amended to prohibit the sale of alcohol because a majority wished to impose their moral beliefs on the minority of citizens. The jury protected citizens from the tyranny of the majority. During Prohibition, juries nullified alcohol control laws about 60 percent of the time. The fact that most juries would not convict on alcohol control laws made the use of alcohol widespread throughout Prohibition. Jury resistance contributed to the adoption of the Twenty-first amendment repealing Prohibition. The jury reflecting made prohibition a toothless amendment.
The Fully Informed Jury
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FIJA ~ Jury Rights Day ~ KrisAnne Hall Explains Jury Nullification
Judge Will Reportedly Misinform Jurors in the Trial of Ammon Bundy & Six Others