Tag Archive for 'montana'

Why Stand Your Ground Laws Are Bad for America

Stand your ground” laws have been controversial since Trayvon Martin’s death. With stand your ground laws in twenty-three states, the unfortunate case of Trayvon Martin was only the beginning. In a recent case, 17-year-old Diren Dede, a German exchange student, was killed when he was shot four times by Markus Kaarma in Montana.

stand your ground laws and Diren DedeMarkus Kaarma was arrested and charged with homicide. Teens “garage hop” in Montana—a game that involves sneaking into random garages to steal beer. Kaarma’s home had been the target of two recent burglaries. In response, Kaarma, father of an infant, installed motion sensors and video cameras to monitor his home. A witness told police that Kaarma had been waiting three nights with his shotgun “to shoot some kid.”

It’s not clear whether Dede entered Kaarma’s home to steal alcohol or the marijuana Kaarma had on his property. Nevertheless, Germany is calling for justice for Dede’s death.

Dede’s death is comparable to Trayvon Martin. In both cases, the state removed requirements for self-defense arguments. In Florida, the state removed the duty to retreat from public places if the person was lawfully there as long as the person didn’t start the conflict. In Montana, lawmakers lowered resident use of deadly force from belief that assailants would use violence to a reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary. The underlying logic is the same: the gun owner’s right to self-defense is paramount.

The problem with this change in self-defense laws is that it undermines the rule of law. If Dede had been captured by the police, he probably would have had a few years in prison for burglary.  Instead, he received the death penalty at the discretion of one man. Dede was put to death for a crime which would have warranted at most a few years of jail. And Dede was put to death without trial. Compare that to the murderers and rapists, real vicious criminals, who spend decades on death row with years of appeals before they are executed. Under stand your ground law, young people like Trayvor and Dede are given fewer rights than serial killers.

Politically, this case trades the explosive internal racial tension of Trayvon Martin for international hypocrisy. It’s difficult to sell political rights in countries like China when foreign citizens are being killed for burglary without trial in our own backyard. In 1994, Singapore wanted to cane Michael Fay for vandalism. President Clinton convinced Singapore to commute the sentence from six strokes of a cane to four, even though Singapore canes its own citizens six times for vandalism. Since Dede is dead, Germany cannot ask for clemency for a punishment that Germans feel is barbaric. It’s impossible, given that Dede’s “punishment” is not given to American citizens for the same crime. Somehow, Singapore has more social equality than we do.

The Montana Pot Rebellion and Jury Nullification

There’s an interesting story coming out of Montana involving what may be one of the most extreme cases of jury nullification I’ve ever heard of. In a criminal case involving possession of a small amount of marijuana, an entire jury panel refused (also seen here) to sit, each of them saying that they would never convict a defendant for possession of a fraction of an ounce of marijuana.

The defendant ended up pleading no contest, which is not an admission of guilt, even though it usually has the same practical effect.

This case raises some extremely interesting questions about marijuana laws, jury nullification, and just how responsive the courts have to be when public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to a particular law.

First of all, public opinion seems to be shifting against criminalization of marijuana, or at least extremely harsh punishments for its possession and use. Obviously, this is a matter of personal opinion, policy preferences, and priorities, on which reasonable minds can differ.

The fact remains, however, that the public (at least in some parts of the U.S.) is firmly on the side of decriminalization of marijuana, or greatly reducing the criminal penalties for possession of the drug. So, what happens when the state calls on members of the public to serve on a jury where the defendant is charged with an act that the public doesn’t believe should be criminalized?

If you’ve ever been called to jury duty, you probably know the drill: the judge and the lawyers for both sides tell you that you have to render a verdict based solely on the evidence presented by each side, and the law as instructed by the judge. You’re told that you have to put your personal views on a particular law aside, and if you’re unable to, you will probably be dismissed from the jury pool.

However, what the court rarely tells the jury about is the practice of “jury nullification.” This is when a jury finds a defendant not guilty, even if they believe that the prosecution has proven all of the facts alleged against the defendant, because they disagree with the law the defendant broke.

The exact nature of jury nullification is sometimes hard for people to wrap their heads around. It’s not a special right of jurors codified in the constitution, or any other source of law, nor is it some secret cheat code.

It’s simply a by-product of the basic nature of the jury system: when a jury renders a verdict, the jurors don’t have to explain their reasoning. It’s that simple. U.S. courts have held that, while jury nullification isn’t exactly a “right” of jurors, jurors can never be punished for rendering an “incorrect” verdict, unless there is clear evidence of misconduct. In criminal cases, unlike civil cases, a court cannot under any circumstances direct a verdict against the defendant. This makes sense, because our constitutional right to a trial by jury in criminal cases wouldn’t mean much of the jury’s verdict could be easily overridden by the court.

This makes jury nullification an extremely powerful tool, and if juries consistently nullify certain types of criminal charges (charges for possession of a small amount of marijuana, for example), this can render an unpopular law ineffective. After a while, prosecutors start to focus on prosecuting other crimes, and with a law going completely un-enforced, lawmakers may reconsider its wisdom.

However, this case went a step further: during jury selection, every prospective juror stated that they would not convict the defendant, regardless of the evidence, to the point that an unbiased jury could not even be impaneled. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening before, and if you’re in Montana, and believe that marijuana should be decriminalized, you might take this as a sign that public opinion is shifting in your favor.

So, what do you do if you’re picked for jury duty and are strongly opposed to the law that the defendant is charged under? That’s actually not an easy decision. If you simply state your views on the law, the prosecution is almost certain to dismiss you as a juror. However, if you really want to be on the jury specifically for the purpose of nullifying the charges, you have to lie when asked about your ability to be impartial. Obviously, it’s best to simply tell the truth.

Interestingly, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has called on Americans, when called to serve on juries in cases involving non-violent drug offenses, to vote for acquittal, regardless of the evidence. It’s unknown how effective this campaign has been, but it’s an interesting idea. But is it a good one?

Jury nullification is not without controversy. Some have argued that it amounts to mob rule, and undermines our unique brand of representative democracy (as opposed to direct democracy). On the other hand, if a person is called to serve in a jury – an important civic duty – they effectively become part of the criminal justice system, and can serve in the role of the justice system’s conscience, and can serve as a direct check against government overreaching. If the people are the “fourth branch” of government, jury nullification is their primary means of exercising their power.

What our clients think

At LegalMatch, we value our client’s opinion and make it a point to address their concerns. You can refer to our reviews page if you want to know what our clients have to say about us.