Friday, September 5, 2008

Sept. 5 Is Jury Rights Day. Do You Know Yours? (Vin Suprynowicz)

Vin Suprynowicz on a jury's right to disregard instructions from the judge:

To grasp why the Bill of Rights leads off by barring Congress from “establishing” any religion, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” you must understand that in 18th century England there was no “separation of church and state.” The English monarch to this day includes in her title “Fidele Defensor” – Defender of the Faith. Which helps explains why even our right to a jury trial stems directly from this era.

In 1670, it was declared illegal to hold a religious gathering or preach a sermon in England which was not a “Church of England” sermon. Dissident churches, including the Quaker meeting houses, were closed.

Unable to get into his London meeting house, William Penn led a Quaker meeting in the street outside. He was arrested and put on trial on Sept. 5, 1670, 338 years ago this week.

The judges explained to the jury that preaching a nonconformist sermon was illegal, and Penn had been caught doing just that. They instructed the jury to convict.

The jury asked to be read the wording of the law Penn was said to have violated. The judges told them they didn’t need to read any stinking law, they were to “take the law as we give it to you” – an insufferably aristocratic phrase that’s cropping up a lot in our own courthouses, these days.

The jury said if they couldn’t see the law, they weren’t going to convict. In fact, God bless them, they unanimously acquitted William Penn, who was thus free to emigrate to America, where he subsequently got his picture on a box of oats, and presumably did some other stuff.

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