In a series of retrospectives on 1968, NPR reports on a sort of jury nullification that took place in Long Island and created a pre-Stonewall victory for gay rights and sexual freedom. In the summers, gay men would come out from New York City and elsewhere for sunbathing, house parties, and in some cases anonymous sex in a wooded area between the towns of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines. And some were arrested, fined, or even imprisoned. Then in 1968 some decided to fight back and hired a lawyer willing to fight for them:
In the autumn of 1968, close to two dozen gay men were acquitted of consensual sodomy charges in a series of criminal trials on Long Island. The trials and acquittals marked a pivotal moment in what eventually became the gay rights movement. They demonstrated to the larger gay community — then mainly closeted — that gay people could band together to resist police harassment….
In late August, 1968, police arrested 27 men in Cherry Grove. A few pleaded guilty to consensual sodomy and payed a fine of $250. But 22 men fought the charges in court.
Benedict Vuturo, a prominent Long Island criminal defense lawyer, was retained by the Mattachine Society. In the fall of 1968 Benny Vuturo, as he was known, demanded jury trials for all of the gay men he was defending.
“Benny said there’s terrible crimes on the mainland of Long Island, murders and rapes, and here the cops go and they beat the bushes and try to find these gay fellas who are not harming anyone,” said reporter Karl Grossman, who covered some of the trials for the Long Island Press.
“The juries, one after another, concurred, and they found the defendants not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. And that was the end of the police raids on Fire Island. To me, it really was a testament to the common sense of eastern Long Island residents who served on those juries, and to the jury system.”
Vuturo was hoping to lose one of the trials so he could challenge New York’s sodomy law but he won every case.
The state’s sodomy law was overturned in 1980, 12 years after the Fire Island trials.
There wasn’t much doubt that the men had been doing what the law prohibited. Yet Long Island juries found them not guilty. That’s a phenomenon often called jury nullification, defined by the Legal Information Institute as “A jury’s knowing and deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law either because the jury wants to send a message about some social issue that is larger than the case itself, or because the result dictated by law is contrary to the jury’s sense of justice, morality, or fairness.” Read more about jury nullification in this Cato Institute book and in a Wall Street Journal article discussed here. It won’t surprise you to hear that judges and prosecutors don’t want juries to know their rights. I wrote about Stonewall here.
It turns out that NBC News covered the 1968 Fire Island story four months ago.