There have been few people in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system that have been more surprised at being charged with a felony than Keith Eric Wood. Mr. Wood, a former pastor and father of seven kids, is being charged with that felony for the alleged crime of standing on a sidewalk in a public place and handing out pamphlets. Mr. Wood was not encouraging people to riot, to injure someone, to destroy property or take up arms against the lawfully elected government of the United States of America. Mr. Wood was arrested and charged with jury tampering for simply handing out a pamphlet informing people of a lawful right called jury nullification. His bail was set at $150,000, roughly the same as someone charged with a major drug crime.
The local prosecutor is not backing down, setting up a showdown about whether it’s legal for someone to hand out brochures near the courthouse informing people that they are free to vote their conscience as a jury member, rather than the letter of the law.
What Is Jury Nullification?
Wikipedia defines jury nullification as a juror being convinced that a defendant is guilty of breaking a law but deciding that the law is unjust or unjustly applied and ruling the defendant not guilty. According to legal scholars jury nullification is a legal right and there’s no penalty for jurors deciding wrongly in a case either way.
This video explains what jury nullification is and the potential ramifications:
The charges against Keith Wood were brought even though Mr. Wood was in what’s clearly recognized as a public space and was not referencing any specific case. Since jury nullification is not an illegal activity, this case will rest solely on whether openly discussing jury nullification in a public place is a legal activity. Despite decades of lower court rulings, for and against jury nullification, the Supreme Court has only ruled that judges are not required to inform juries about nullification.
Anarchy or Righteous Cause?
Jury nullification is seen by some as anarchy and by others as a check against over-regulation by the state. In Montana there’s evidence that jury nullification is being used to thwart prosecution for marijuana possession. Although no one has ever admitted it publicly, there was some speculation that the verdict in the O. J. Simpson murder trial was an example of jury nullification. During prohibition, juries routinely nullified enforcement of alcohol laws. In Colorado prosecutors are also trying to prosecute people for merely talking about jury nullification. How you feel about any of those specific cases may influence your opinion of jury nullification and whether it’s fair game for conversation near a courthouse.
For now the fight boils down to whether you have a legal right to discuss a lawful act in a public place, even if prosecutors and judges would prefer you didn’t.