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Jury Duty

I served on a jury August 5th through the 7th, 1997. Interesting experience. I had never done that before. The case involved "Custodial Interference". The guy admitted taking the children, leaving the state, dyeing the kids hair a different color, changing their names, and basically hiding out from the authorities. What we didn't hear was why he did it -- not a word. We found him guilty, as you might expect. Later, reading the papers we found out why he did it. He claimed they were being abused. Idaho State law provides for "Imminent Physical Danger" being a valid defense for "Custodial Interference". I was somewhat annoyed that the judge decided they weren't in "Imminent Physical Danger", and refused to allow testimony regarding this, rather than letting the jury decide. Isn't the jury supposed to be the sole finder of the facts? I doubt we would have reached a different decision, but it seemed to me that the judge made our job irrelevant in this case. Also, the jury selection procedure seemed to be geared towards weeding out people that might find a reason to disobey the law under some circumstances or might refuse to convict someone that broke a law they didn't agree with. I got an opportunity to chat with the prosecuting attorney (PA) about these issues after the trial.

The links below are to the Lewiston Morning Tribune stories about the trial. My conversation with the PA follow them.
bulletTuesday, August 5, 1997 Around the Region
bulletWednesday, August 6, 1997 Leas sisters tell of life on the lam
bulletThursday, August 7, 1997 Jurors begin pondering Leas case; Panel recesses after two hours of deliberations
bulletFriday, August 8, 1997 Leas isn't surprised by verdict; Helmer man found guilty of child custody interference
bulletTuesday, February 3, 1998 Man convicted in custody case denies violating his probation

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On August 14, 1997, I chatted with Robin Eckmann (Deputy Prosecuting Attorney -- 208-883-2246) for a couple hours about jury nullification, the case that I was on, religion, feminism, my web pages and other stuff. Interesting person to talk to, I enjoyed it a great deal. It also helped me feel better about the job I did. I had felt the jury should have heard more of the defendant's story. Why did he do it? What was his justification? He didn't believe he had done anything wrong, yes, he admitted talking the children without permission of their mother, but we knew he had some justification that he was not allowed to tell us.

The issue of the alleged child abuse was not presented to the jury because the judge ruled "No reasonable jury would conclude the incidents constituted abuse." That made it irrelevant to the case. It is the judge's job to disallow irrelevant testimony and evidence in the case. If anything the defense wanted to bring in was allowed the cases could literally go on for years as the defense brought in today's weather report and the price of potatoes in Ireland, etc. etc. to a mugging trial. The judge listened to the testimony that the defense wanted us to hear and ruled it was irrelevant. From what I have read in the paper, he was probably correct in his decision.

I asked about jury nullification, what her personal opinions were on it, not the official position of the prosecuting attorney's office. She said that it would "go hand in hand with a fully informed jury." It has a lot of risks, the decisions would lack consistency -- an articulate, persuasive juror could sway a jury to disregard the law. That sort of thing happens some now, but when the jury agrees to abide by the law going in to jury room they are more likely to speak up and remind others they are to uphold the law, not nullify it.

I asked about her power to selectively enforce the law, shouldn't the jury have nearly an equal power to declare a law "bad"? She said Idaho has very few bad laws and that it is possible to get laws changed. If it is a bad law then people have the opportunity to participate in the legislative process and fix it. What about the law against fornication Idaho has. This being a college town, I suspect there are a large number of unprosecuted cases each day that the prosecuting attorney really doesn't want to hear about or enforce. She agreed that is one law that is very rarely enforced in Idaho. But her boss is an elected official and is responsible to the public. That is how the public guides the PA's office in the selective enforcement of the law.

I asked about all the questions seemingly directly aimed at weeding out people who might consider jury nullification a legitimate course of action. What if most of the people called to jury duty "had a problem" with the law in question? Doesn't the limited number of preemption's (six) in that case mean the state will ultimately be forced to accept a juror that will or might not convict? She said the judge could excuse "for cause" an unlimited number of jurors.

We both had a good laugh about my web page with the question, "When, if ever, is it morally justified to break the law?" I had put that up a couple weeks before I was called to jury duty -- and it directly related to the defendant's desired defense! She said that on this case, of all cases, she had to get a juror that was thinking about those sorts of things. "Next time I'll ask if the jurors have any web pages!"

The other stuff we talked about was interesting but mostly unrelated to the case.

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Last update: February 16, 2003
Email: Joe Huffman