The Missoula Seven and Peremptory Nullification

The Missoulian, the paper of record for Missoula, Montana, recently recounted a curious incident that got picked up by papers across the globe. During the voir dire stage of the trial,

…made it clear they weren’t about to convict anybody for having a couple of buds of marijuana. Never mind that the defendant in question also faced a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel.

No, they said, one after the other. No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce….

District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.

We here at the Jury and Democracy Blog are going to suggest a name for this relatively unusual phenomenon. We call it: peremptory nullification.

Normally, juries “nullify” a case during their deliberations, when they deem a law unjust and refuse to follow the judge’s instructions to apply the law to the facts of the case. Typically, this means returning a “not guilty” verdict when it is obvious the defendant had broken the law.

What these jurors did was say, “Don’t even bother trying the case.” More precisely, they said “drop the marijuana possession charge, okay?” Recognizing it would be hard to find a jury unlikely to nullify (or at least deadlock), the prosecutor opted to work out a plea with the defendant. In effect, the prospective jurors used the threat of nullification to force the plea bargain.

Once again, evidence that the jury is a lively and vital part of government in the U.S.

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About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Social/political impact of juries, Verdicts juries reach, Voir dire and jury selection. Bookmark the permalink.

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