Sunday, March 18, 2007

www.fija.org



In November of 1734, a printer named John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel against his Majesty's government. At that time, a law of the Colony of New York forbid any publication without prior government approval. Freedom of the press was not enjoyed by the early colonialists! Zenger, however, defied this censorship and published articles strongly critical of New York colonial rule.

When brought to trial in August of 1735, Zenger admitted publishing the offending articles, but argued that the truth of the facts stated justified their publication. The judge instructed the jury that truth is not justification for libel. Rather, truth makes the libel more vicious, for public unrest is more likely to follow true, rather than false claims of bad governance. And since the defendant had admitted to the "fact" of publication, only a question of "law" remained.
Then, as now, the judge said the "issue of law" was for the court to determine, and he instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty. It took only ten minutes for the jury to disregard the judge's instructions on the law and find Zenger NOT GUILTY.

As recently as 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the jury has an " unreviewable and irreversible power... to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge.... (US vs Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

Or as this same truth was stated in a earlier decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Maryland: "We recognize, as appellants urge, the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by the judge, and contrary to the evidence. This is a power that must exist as long as we adhere to the general verdict in criminal cases, for the courts cannot search the minds of the jurors to find the basis upon which they judge. If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused, is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic of passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision." (US vs Moylan, 417 F 2d 1002, 1006 (1969)).

2 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff Rage said...

I would not be here today if it weren't for US vs. Moylan. It was a dark, stormy night. My convoy had been picked up by the New Mexican police commissioner's new Elite Drug Task force. They almost had me for good when they opened up my truck to find a couple kilos of pure coke. By the graces of God, the random jury selection somehow randomly put 10 of the biggest fucking potheads together who had only recently met (something they hid from the judges and lawyers) a week before at a Phish concert. During this concert, the gentlemen discussed their own utopian worlds and interestingly enough what kind of laws this dreamworld would have. If only they had an opportunity...a chance....to somehow see this through....

2:50 AM  
Blogger BigB said...

Did you get the yay back?

11:57 PM  

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