Thursday, May 3, 2012

Prosecutorial Discretion Went Awry in Nullification Case

Two weeks ago Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York dismissed the indictment in one of the sillier prosecutions brought in that court in recent years.  See article here and opinion here - Download Opinion.  Julian P. Heicklen, an 80 year-old retired professor, was charged with jury tampering (18 U.S.C. 1503) for distributing at the courthouse steps pamphlets of the Fully Informed Jury Association ("FIJA") that advocated jury nullification.

The pamphlet stated, in part:  "You may choose to vote to acquit, even when the evidence proves that the defendant 'did it,' if your conscience so dictates."  It also suggested that jurors may choose to be less than candid when asked questions during jury selection about their ability to follow the law as instructed by the judge.  It is "your moral choice," the pamphlet stated, whether to "give answers that are likely to get you excused from serving, or say whatever it takes to be selected, so you can do your part to see that justice is served." 

Jury nullification, as commonly understood, goes only one way.  It allows jurors to ignore their oaths and acquit a defendant even if they are convinced that her guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The potential effect of Heicklen's pamphleteering -- if it were to have any, which I question -- would be acquittals (or hung juries) in cases that otherwise would have resulted in jury verdicts of guilty.

The prosecutors in the Southern District were understandably upset.  Heicklen was in a sense treading on their turf -- both the courthouse and the law.  The prosecutors reacted aggressively, investigating by using an undercover agent and indicting based on an apparently unclear statute and in a bedrock area of First Amendment protection.  In court, a prosecutor called Heicklen's advocacy "a significant and important threat to our judicial system." 

Rather than the crucial decision to prosecute being made by independent, disinterested prosecutors, as it should always be, here it was made and carried out by the very prosecutors who were in a practical sense themselves the aggrieved parties or "victims."   It was their cases -- their convictions -- that Heicklen arguably put in jeopardy by suggesting that jurors might still acquit even if they believed the defendant had been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Southern District prosecutors were too conflicted and too involved to be allowed to make the decision whether to prosecute Heicklen (and they were too conflicted and too involved to make a reasoned, dispassionate and intelligent decision).  The conflict here was not the potential or hypothetical conflict that prosecutors often argue should disqualify defense counsel, but an actual one.  If the prosecutors felt Heicklen should have been prosecuted, they should have referred the ultimate decision to the Department of Justice in Washington.  (While I do not know definitively that the Southern District prosecutors did not, if they had, I would have expected that the case would have been prosecuted by Central DOJ lawyers.) 

There is an obvious imbalance in the criminal justice system.  One litigant, the prosecutor, may charge the opposing litigant with perjury, the litigant's lawyer with obstruction and the litigant's advocate with jury tampering.  The other litigant, the defendant (and his counsel), can only howl about agents who lie and prosecutors who secure convictions and jail sentences by concealing evidence.  The power of one litigant to protect his case (or cases) by charging one seeking to undermine it (or them) is a drastic one that should be used with care and extreme caution.  Here, prosecutorial discretion went awry.

Judge Wood's decision was calm, deliberate, and thorough, considering statutory construction, legislative history, judicial rulings and constitutional implications, and not, at least directly, criticizing the prosecution.  Granting the defendant's pre-trial motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b) on the grounds that the facts did not state an offense, she ruled that the statute was limited to advocacy relating to a specific case, not a general philosophy, as here.  Although Judge Wood ultimately relied on a plain language analysis and did not explicitly rule on the First Amendment issue, she indicated that Heicklen's conduct was constitutionally protected free speech.

The case represents governmental overreaching in a sensitive free speech area.  Perhaps if the decision whether to prosecute were made at Central DOJ, it would have been different, and the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a highly respected and effective office, would have been spared an embarrassing defeat (and Mr. Heicklen spared a prosecution, although I suspect he rather enjoyed it).

The ultimate result may be that FIJA now has a license (in the form of a district court decision) to distribute literature suggesting nullification on the steps of federal courthouses, or nearby, throughout the nation.  (Judge Wood did recognize that reasonable restrictions on such distribution under other laws may apply.)

(goldman)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/whitecollarcrime_blog/2012/05/julien-heicklen.html

Judicial Opinions, Privileges, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341bfae553ef01630514a72e970d

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Prosecutorial Discretion Went Awry in Nullification Case:

Comments

Jury nullification was the overarching reason we have the right to jury trials with strict venue requirements in our constitution. Jury trials had to be where the crime occurred so jury's could nullify the actions of the crown in bringing charges in England for crimes committed here.

Posted by: Nat Dershowitz | May 7, 2012 1:12:47 PM

Post a comment