Today’s date, Sept. 5, marks an important historical event in the development of the right to trial by jury. On this day in 1670, William Penn and William Mead were prosecuted in England for “unlawful assembly,” “disturbing the peace,” and “riot.” These “crimes” arose from Penn having preached near Grace Church to a meeting of several hundred Quakers.
It was a peculiar trial in many respects. The court, for example, denied Penn’s request to simply read the indictment. But the trial was most notable for the way in which the court tried to bully the jury. When the jury did not come back with guilty verdicts, but a verdict that simply said “guilty of speaking to an assembly,” the court refused to accept that outcome and ordered the jury to return to their deliberations. When the jury returned with a verdict that acquitted Mead of all charges, the court ordered the jury to prison! Next, the jurors filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the legality of their imprisonment.
Soon after, an important legal precedent was set for jury independence: jurors cannot be punished for voting their conscience. That’s the story behind “Jury Rights Day.”
Alas, the jury trial has been in a steady decline here in the United States.
We started out strong. Our Constitution says, “the Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall by by Jury.” And our second president, John Adams, said, “It is not only [the juror’s] right, but his duty … to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.”
But these days, the government pressures many defendants to enter into plea bargains so fewer and fewer cases go to trial. And the government no longer wants jurors to vote their conscience. Indeed, it goes so far as to arrest people for distributing pamphlets that discuss these matters.
We need policies that will once again honor the role that juries play in securing justice.