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The Wrong Man


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To the editors:

Your September 10 article, "Tell It to the Jury," contains a major error of historical fact. You wrote that " . . . shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution Alexander Hamilton got John Peter Zenger, who was charged with sedition, off the hook by arguing that the jury should let their collective conscience be their guide." Zenger's attorney was in fact Andrew Hamilton, who was not even a relative of Alexander Hamilton. The argument of Andrew Hamilton was not based on general grounds of conscience, but on the specific grounds that truth should be a defense to a charge of seditious libel. And the trial took place in 1734, more than 40 years before the outbreak of the Revolution.

Your article also ignores the most important examples of juror nullification: that is, of juries refusing to follow the law as given to them by the judge. In the south before about 1965 it was relatively safe to lynch blacks or murder civil-rights workers because juries refused to convict for those crimes. For example, in the 1950s Chicago teenager Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi because he had whistled at a white woman. The killers were acquitted, even though they were obviously guilty.

Thus juror nullification means that unpopular people would be deprived of the protection of the law. Your gay and lesbian readers should realize that juror nullification would mean that in many areas it would be safer to commit crimes of violence against gay people.

Kevin Sweeney

S. Dearborn

Bryan Miller replies:

The reference to Alexander Hamilton came from several FIJA activists; my apologies if their information was wrong. In any case, even a strong-government advocate like Alexander Hamilton favored the basic English common law principle of jury nullification; in 1804 he stated that jurors should ignore the judge's instructions "if exercising their judgment with discretion and honesty they have a clear conviction that the charge of the court is wrong."

I did bring out the negative side of jury nullification in my article. But I see nothing to indicate that Americans these days are likely to let off perpetrators of violent crimes. The protections given the vast majority of defendants under FIJA would far outweigh the occasional poor result: I'd rather see the occasional guilty party get let off the hook than innocent people sent to jail.

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