Am I a Criminal?
by Laura Kriho

I was convicted of contempt of court after I refused to vote guilty when I served on a jury in a methamphetamine case in Gilpin County, Colorado. I believed the evidence was insufficient, but the other jurors wanted to convict and get home for dinner. Our discussions became very heated. In frustration, I told the other jurors that the defendant could get several years in prison if we convicted her. (We weren't supposed to discuss sentencing consequences.) I also said I thought it was a shame that drug cases couldn't be handled by the family and community instead of the courts. And I talked about the concept of jury nullification, the historic power of juries to vote according to their conscience.

Another juror sent a note to the judge describing the "improper" arguments I was making. The judge declared a mistrial, and I was investigated. The district attorney discovered that I was arrested (but not convicted) in 1985 for LSD possession, that I was an active proponent of cannabis law reform, and that I was familiar with the doctrine of jury nullification.

I endured a trial in October 1996 where nine of my fellow jurors testified about how we deliberated. I was finally convicted of contempt (after four months of deliberation by the judge) for failing to volunteer answers to questions I wasn't asked during jury selection. According to the judge, I knew that the information the prosecutor had later discovered about me was important and should have volunteered it, even if I wasn't asked about it. I was fined $1200. My conviction is under appeal.

Since my prosecution, I have learned a lot about the history of juries and the importance of the doctrine of jury nullification. Jury "nullification" describes the historic power of juries to vote according to their conscience, even if it is contrary to the evidence. Juries can "nullify" laws in a particular instance, either because the jurors believe that the law is unjust or because they believe the application of the law in a particular instance would be unjust. A jury can acquit for any reason.

This power is also referred to as jury "discretion." Just as police use discretion on whether to enforce the law; and prosecutors use discretion when charging someone with a violation of the law; and judges use discretion in deciding whether to dismiss those charges; jurors also have the power to use discretion in applying the law.

Jury nullification is not a new or radical concept. It is an English doctrine that was brought over to the U.S. and was well known to the authors of the Constitution. Many of our early revolutionaries, accused of victimless crimes against the Crown, were set free by juries of their peers. Jury nullification of unjust laws helped secure our rights to free speech, free press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.

Jury nullification allows citizens to send a message to legislators that certain laws should change. For instance, one of the reasons Alcohol Prohibition was repealed was that it became virtually impossible to find a jury to convict a person of an alcohol offense. The legislators got the message.

Until the end of the 19th century, judges routinely informed jurors of their power to judge the law as well as the facts in a case. Although modern courts agree that jurors do have the power to evaluate the law, they say jurors don't have the right. Therefore, the courts no longer inform juries of their lawful power (which the courts believe is not a right).

My conviction has taken this reasoning a step further, implying that any potential juror who possesses knowledge of the power of jury nullification and who fails to volunteer that knowledge during jury selection, even if not asked, can and will be prosecuted. The court has created a thought crime. Hopefully, my conviction will be overturned in a higher court.

Meanwhile, I hope that my knowledge and experiences will help empower juries to fulfill their intended purpose as a check and balance on other branches of government and thus enhance our systems of justice and legislation.

Laura Kriho
Gilpin County, Colorado

Laura Kriho has been an organizer for the Colorado Hemp Initiative Project for five years. CO-HIP advocates the re-legalization of Cannabis sativa for industrial, medicinal, and personal use.

Donations to help pay for legal appeals can be sent to:

The Laura Kriho Legal Defense Fund
P.O. Box 729
Nederland, CO 80466

For more information on the Kriho case and other jury issues contact:

The Jury Rights Project

From DrugSense Weekly #16, 1997-10-15

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