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Bill allowing jury 'nullification' of criminal laws is dead for session

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- A House committee chairman killed a bill Monday that would grant extraordinary powers to juries to ignore criminal laws at the request of a defendant.

But Rep. Wes Keller, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a Wasilla Republican, said he'd like to see a jury nullification bill introduced again next year, when the 29th Legislature convenes.

To bill supporters, Keller said, "Please stay in touch with the sponsor, Rep. Tammie Wilson, who intends to work on this further over the interim."

The bill appeared to have some popularity among residents in the Fairbanks and Delta Junction area who sounded deeply suspicious of government when they testified in favor of the bill Monday.

"It is necessary for the restoration of justice," said Pamela Good, phoning in from Delta Junction. "We currently have bureaucratic codes that overstep statutes, statutes that overstep the constitution, and we have men and women in black robes -- we will refer to as judges -- that have forgotten their proper lawful authority."

Wilson is a Republican from North Pole. She and another Republican, Rep. Doug Isaacson, were redistricted into the same House seat, and Isaacson said in an interview Monday that he'd also support the measure if he beat Wilson in the primary. Both, along with Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, are sponsors of the bill, House Bill 315.

Under the bill, juries would be more than the triers of fact they are now The bill allows jurors to disregard the law and acquit a guilty defendant if they believe the law to be unjust. The bill requires judges to tell jurors of that power and allows defendants to argue for nullification, including the right to present evidence. The bill doesn't limit the kinds of evidence they could use.

Testifying against the bill, Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny said it would change court rules and lead to unforeseen consequences. Among them: The federal government would probably take over prosecutions of firearm crimes over concern that a state jury would nullify the conviction for a felon in possession of a gun.

"We fought hard and long about federal overreach, but this is handing them a present if there is jury nullification," Svobodny said.

He also cited a personal story from when he was a young attorney 40 years ago and considering a district attorney job in an Oregon town with a mixed and hostile population of Native Americans and Caucasians.

"With assaults and homicides, there had never been an American Indian who wasn't convicted, and there never had been a Caucasian who was," Svobodny said.

And just last week, Svobodny said, he heard the chairman of the Indian Law & Order Commission say that since the nation's founding, more than 100 Indians were executed for murder.

"The number of Caucasians who had sentenced to death for killing an Indian was zero," Svobodny said. "That is jury nullification."

Saralyn Tabachnick, director of a Juneau rape crisis center, said the lack of any limitation on evidence would allow defendants to subpoena the testimony of counselors who helped their victims.

"This could have a tremendous impact in terms of victims coming forward and speaking confidentially to victim advocates," Tabachnick said.

But Frank Turney of Fairbanks cited historical cases of jury nullification that led to civil liberties in America, like the John Peter Zenger trial in 1735. Zenger had libeled the British governor of New York in tracts he had published and the colonial authorities brought him to trial, but a jury of colonists refused to convict him.

And Alyssa Williams, also calling in from Fairbanks, said people have gotten the role of juries all wrong. Juries are not there to determine guilt or innocence, she said, "but rather to protect some of the defendants from tyrannical abuses of power by government."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com