When a handful of potential jurors in Missoula County District Court recently expressed their unwillingness to convict Touray Cornell for possessing a small amount of marijuana, County Attorney Andrew Paul called it a "mutiny."
But Iloilo Marguerite Jones wouldn't use that word.
Jones serves as director of the Helena-based Fully Informed Jury Association, whose mission is to educate Americans about their rights, powers and responsibilities when serving as trial jurors. She believes the term "mutiny" suggests unlawfulness, when in fact the Missoula jurors were expressing, as Jones puts it, their "inherent birthright" to "refuse to enforce bad laws."
"Since the Magna Carta, the primary purpose of juries has been to restrain the government from predatory, venal and vindictive actions against private individuals," Jones says. "That authority of the jury has waxed and waned since the Magna Carta because there is always a conflict between human rights and governments' attempts to gather more power to itself."
Generally, that authority has waned of late, which is why Jones was so delighted to hear that District Judge Dusty Deschamps called a recess on Dec. 16 after excusing at least five potential jurors who said they wouldn't convict Cornell for possessing a couple grams of pot. The development left Deschamps doubting whether he could seat a truly representative jury.
The near jury-nullification has reverberated throughout the country. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Atlantic and Slate, among others, covered it, all suggesting the incident demonstrates an increasingly lax attitude toward pot.
Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, certainly believes the potential jurors sent a message. He hopes their attitude will spark more jury nullifications—and ultimately changes to marijuana laws.
"It's demonstrative of the fact...that if juries will not convict people of these sorts of charges, it really does bring the entire system to a halt," St. Pierre says. "It speaks to an incredible institutional disconnect where the system says, 'We can arrest you, we can prosecute you, we can bring you right up to the precipice of being incarcerated, but even though you are guilty of the crime, per se, you are not going to be convicted.'"
The Missoula County Attorney's Office declined to comment on whether it anticipates the "mutiny" affecting future cases.