Guilty, Not Guilty


When I was writing my first historical, KNIGHT ON THE TEXAS PLAINS, I had to research juries in the Old West. My heroine was accused of murdering her first husband. Jessie ran from the law and was sheltered by Duel McClain, my hero. They subsequently married and set about raising a child Duel had won in a poker game. As with most stories dealing with a character who runs Jessie was tracked down (by Duel’s brother no less) and taken back for trial. That’s when I knew I had to find out more about juries and the legal system.

Jury members were either handpicked by the judge (which sometimes led to grossly unfair disadvantages for the defendant if the judge had an ax to grind) or names were drawn from a hat.

Sometimes they chose six and sometimes twelve jurors. Only white males were chosen. No women or other nationalities were allowed to serve.

Fact: In 1970 the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that a jury panel of six did not violate the accused Sixth Amendment Rights and the defendant’s guilty verdict was upheld as Constitutional. I did not know this. I’d always thought a jury was comprised of twelve people.

Another thing that really struck me was learning about Jury Nullification (the process whereby a jury in a criminal case nullifies a law by acquitting a defendant regardless of the weight of evidence against him or her.) In other words, nullification often happens when the jury believes some social issue is larger than the case itself. That’s happened pretty frequently.

Take the case of John Peter Zenger in 1733. Zenger was an editor and publisher of a New York newspaper. He printed another man’s article criticizing William Cosby, the Governor of New York. Zenger was arrested and tried for seditious libel. Although he was guilty of printing the anonymous article in the newspaper according to the law at the time, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict effectively nullifying the law. Zenger’s attorney, Andrew Hamilton, established the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libel if it can be proven, thus affirming freedom of the press in America.

That’s what happens to Jessie in Knight on the Texas Plains. The jury knew she was guilty of murdering her first husband but realized that she was justified in doing so and that she was protecting her own life. There wasn’t a law at the time against a man beating his wife but there should’ve been and her knew it.

Another fact: It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress passed the Jury Selection and Service Act. It reformed the selection process, mandating that a pool of jury names be selected from registered voters and that the names be randomly selected. I can’t believe it took that long. That’s astounding to me.

And lastly….In 1870 the first woman juror, Eliza Stewart of Laramie, Wyoming was chosen.

Do you know of any well-known jury cases? While I didn’t agree with it then or now, O.J. Simpson’s not guilty verdict for the murder of Nicole Simpson comes to mind.

Leave a comment to get your name in the pot for a copy of KNIGHT ON THE TEXAS PLAINS.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

44 thoughts on “Guilty, Not Guilty”

  1. When I was researching my North Dakota historical series, I learned about a titled Frenchman called the Marquis de Mores. He was a visionary who started the town of Medora (1883) and had a dream of shipping butchered beef back east. He was put on trial at some point for killing a man who attacked him and some associates while they were riding on the marquis’ land. I find it odd that a man would have to go on trial for shooting someone just to save his own life.

  2. Linda, historical research about juries and prisons and women vs the law are always full of interesting stuff.

    I read one where a woman was let off of a murder charge because she was a woman adn the jury just plain didn’t want to send a woman to the only prison around, Yuma. rumor had it that she was beautiful and flirted shamelessly with the jury and judge.

    I read another one where a woman was sent to Yuma for having an affair. That was her only crime.

    So injustice didn’t really START with our generation, though i think we may have PERFECTED it.

  3. When I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma I was called for jury three times. Most people only get called once. These were just people suing each other. When we moved to Vinita my driver’s license was due to be renewed. Thats how Oklahoma picks their jury. I was called and served on that jury. It was about internet sex with a minor. Not exactly what I wanted to hear.

  4. What a great post! I really can’t think of any jury cases at this time but I will have to agree with you that I do think that OJ was guilty and I will never believe anything else. I guess it just takes a lot of money and power to get away with murder.

  5. Hi Vickie……glad to see you stop by. That Marquis de Mores case sounds similar to the one I wrote about in my book. Jessie was guilty but she had a good reason for killing her husband. He’d put her through the wringer in more ways than one.

    I’m looking forward for your next release. I love your work.

  6. Hi Minna……I’m sure Finland has a totally different justice system. You must think our way of trying people is very strange. Hope you enjoy your day and if it’s still snowy there stay warm.

  7. Hi Joye……glad you enjoyed my blog. And yes, history is full of men who got away with their crimes. Sometimes Lady Liberty looks the other way. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. My favorite accounts of jury trials involve Abraham Lincoln. In one famous trial he used the Farmer’s Almanac to refute an eyewitness’s testimony. He said he could see clearly in the moonlight. The almanac indicated that the moon was about to set and visibilty was poor.
    There is also a report that when he was a lawyer in Illinois he helped a 70 year old woman on trial for the murder of her abusive husband to escape. The legend is that Lincoln asked for time with her to prepare her defense. When court reconvened, she was missing. He reportedly told the judge that he did not chase her off. He said she asked for a drink and he told her there was mighty good drinking water in Tennessee. The charges against her were later dismissed.

  9. Hi Mary……how right you are. Sometimes the law doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. But for the most part we do okay I guess. In spite of its flaws I think we have the best system around. It’s lots better than being stoned to death for trumped up charges.

  10. Hi Goldie…….thanks for stopping by. My goodness, you must be an expert on juries as many times as you’ve served! Wow! I hope they let you rest a bit before they call you again. I’ve never served on a jury but I think it would be an interesting experience.

  11. Hi Quilt Lady……. I’m so glad you enjoyed my blog. I believe you’re right about the fact that money and power can work in an accused’s favor. Too bad I don’t have either. I’d better walk the straight and narrow.

  12. Hi Judy H…….how funny. Abe Lincoln was a character. He had definite opinions on justice. I’m sure that woman was very grateful for his help. About the same think happened with the attorney Temple Houston (Sam Houston’s son) here in Texas except his client was a man. The man was accused of killing another in self defense. Temple knew he’d not get a good outcome so he helped the man escape.

    Hope you have a good day.

  13. Thanks for sharing some interesting facts with us… Makes you wonder how women were viewed and treated back then if they were on trial…

  14. Hi Colleen…….I’m so glad you found my blog interesting. You’re right about women not having many rights in the 1800’s. I’d have hated to live back then. It must’ve been really frustrating for a woman to find men viewed much higher than they were and afforded so many more rights.

    Have a wonderful day!

  15. I’ve been called to Jury Duty maybe three times. Twice they settled before the trial so I just had to show up, wait around, then leave.
    Once I sat through a trial and I have zero doubt that we let a guilty man go free.
    I and one man held out the longest, but in the end I just caved rather than have a hung jury and probably they wouldn’t retry it anyway.
    But it’s a small court in a small county and the prosecutor was a total failure. I could shoot holes in his case all day long.

    the weird part was, like I said, a small county. They did a bunch of jury elimiation for anyone who was friends, or neighbors or relatives of anyone and that sent a LOT of people home. It was about stolen and forged checks from a family I’d certainly heard of. Checks stolen by a friend of their son.
    I went back into teh jury room where they’re supposed to elect a jury foreman and the second we stepped in the room, with a jury that is supposedly impartial, one man announces to the whole room, “Everyone knows the son was in on it. They shouldn’t be trying this kid and letting the son off.”

    I was honestly shocked. To have this man completely state this opinion like that, completely override the trial we’d just sat through with gossip he’d heard (I certainly hadn’t heard it) struck me as really wrong. A couple other people nodded and said ‘me too. I heard that too.’
    And it was just over after that. Even though, to me they had completely proved to my satisfaction that the kid HAD stolen the checks and forged them.


  16. Very interesting post, Linda. I love your stories, and your research always shows through. This is a really different topic–one I hadn’t really thought about too much. The way things were decided, the laws, the verdicts–it’s all really odd and we have sure come a long way in the last century, but there are still those that go free that shouldn’t because they have a way of getting off on a technicality. Guess there’s no foolproof system. Great post–it’s got me thinking now! Can’t wait to read that book.
    Cheryl P.

  17. Not a well known case, but when we lived in Colorado Springs, there was a trial for child molestation in Denver that really upset me. It happened in the early 80’s, so the exact details are fuzzy. Two young girls, 10 to 12 I think, had cut across a vacant lot on their way home from school, something they had been told not to do many times. A man accosted them and sexually molested them both. I can’t remember if it went to trial and the judge threw out the verdict or if he threw out the charges. At any rate, the judge dismissed either the charges or the verdict with the statement that the guy shouldn’t be punished because he did the girls a favor by teaching them a lesson. Sounds to me like a judge that is too old, way behind the times, and too stupid to be sitting on the bench.
    Thanks for an interesting post. 1968 is such a late date for the government to get the process for a fair jury selection established. I suspect the Civil Rights movement had something to do with it.

  18. Hi Linda,
    I can’t think of a jury case other than Simpson.
    I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading this book.
    Have a great day!

  19. Hi Linda, Fascinating post! You have to wonder about the randomness of justice even today. Twelve people can hear the same thing in 12 different ways. My husband’s been on a couple of juries. I’ve never been called but I’d be glad to serve.

  20. Mary, that trial you sat on turned out like a lot of others I’ve heard of. Juries are so important and the chosen people really need to understand that they should do the best job they can and try to be impartial until they have all the facts. I’m sure this happens a lot though.

  21. Hi Cheryl P……..I’m glad my blog got you thinking. Hopefully you’ll put some of this in a story one day. I really struggle sometimes to find a subject no one has blogged about. And with so many Fillies it’s becoming increasingly difficult.

  22. Hi Patricia B……..that judge should be disbarred. He had no business sitting on the bench with that attitude. It’s people like him who give trials a bad name. Yes, 1968 was a very long time to go without a proper way to select jurists. I have no idea why it took that many years.

  23. Very interesting post. I watched every day of the OJ trial. I would get so disgusted, I’d yell at the TV and we all know that doesn’t help. Well, he’s off the streets now. I’m sure the judge in Las Vegas made her point by putting him away.
    Your book sound like one I would like to read.

  24. Hi Victoria……glad you liked my blog subject. Maybe you’ll get picked one day soon for a jury and you’ll find out how it feels. I haven’t been chosen yet either but I’d like to. I think it would be interesting. For sure it’d give me more fodder for a book.

  25. Hi Margaret…….I’m tickled to think I may have inspired you to write that book with a lawyer hero. I do hope you’ll write it. You come up with some of the most interesting entertaining stories.

  26. Hi Mary J…….I shared your frustration with the O.J. trial. I did the same thing. I wanted that jury to find him guilty so bad I could taste it. I certainly never bought his story about the events. And if he didn’t do it why on God’s green earth did he write that book called “If I Did It.” That trial was so bizarre. But at least they did get him on the other charges a few years ago in Las Vegas. Yay!

  27. This is all so interesting. I just got called to jury duty this month. I want to serve but the getting there was horrible. I finally got a ride at 6:15 AM for an 8:30 appointment. There were at least 200 people there and 6 juries of 12 plus 4 extras were picked out of at leat 24 possibles. A couple cases were settled so I wasn’t picked. I wish I had at least been interviewed since I was very curious. Everyone always says we have the best system in the world although I know it’s not perfect. I think no matter what the jury says, the judges have more say.

  28. I thought the OJ Simpson trial was a gross miscarriage of justice and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

    I enjoyed your post.

  29. Hi Linda, your mention of libel makes me think of Joseph Howe, who played a large part in bringing true representative government to Nova Scotia. He ran a newspaper in Halifax and was tried for libel after printing articles critical of the government, but was acquitted – after defending himself brilliantly in court – because his statements were proved true, like Zenger’s. It’s something kids learn about in elementary school here. Isn’t research the best?

  30. Hi, Linda, I’m 74 and have never served on a jury.
    I was called about 6 times over the years, but until
    my youngest was 10 I never had to appear. The last
    of three times that I had to go to the courthouse,
    I actually made it into the courtroom for voire dire. (Not sure sure of the spelling!) My response
    to the questioning must not have been to someone’s
    liking because I was excused! Now I’m over the age
    limit unless I “wish” to serve!

  31. Hi catslady…….glad you found my blog interesting. I’m sorry you weren’t chosen as a jurist. Some people hate it but then there are ones who love the experience. Maybe you’ll get another chance soon. The job if handled properly carries lots of weight with it.

  32. Hi Estella…….I couldn’t agree more. The exorbitant cost of that trial might be one reason California’s in such a financial mess. And as for O.J. thankfully there’s a higher judge than these earthly ones. He’ll get is due one of these days.

  33. Hi Jennie…….Joseph Howe sounds like an interesting fellow. I’m glad he successfully defended himself. Lots of times these trials lead to law reform. That’s what happened in Zenger’s case. How nice to know that these two men are studied in school up there.

  34. Hi Pat C………glad you stopped by to comment. It’s always nice to see your name pop up. I’m sorry you never got chosen as a jurist. I hear it’s an amazing experience, depending on the case of course. Some cases are downright boring and I’d have no interest in them at all. Maybe you can request that your name be put in the pool if you want to do it.

  35. There is an interesting case coming soon ..that of Loughner, the suspected killer in the recent Arizona massacre…and already they have chosen several lawyers and the judge to preside over that case from right here in my backyard of San Diego. I will be watching this case very closely as I’m sure many others will as it will dominate the newspapers and other media.

  36. Hi Linda, I found this an ineresting post. Have never actually sat on a jury but have been called for jury duty so many times I’ve lost track. Once I recieved the letter dismissing me and another calling me to serve again on the sme day. When I called and asked why I was told it was the luck of the draw. I asked if they could please draw the lottery numbers next time as I never win anything else!

  37. I should add that the only thing I ever seam to win is books from some of my favorite authors here on P&P!!! Ilove them and do want to say thanks again.

  38. Fascinating post Linda! I’ve never been called to jury duty but think it would be an interesting experience.

  39. Super post, Linda. I watched every second of the O.J. Simpson trial. A good friend’s son was altar boy at Nicole’s funeral. No more comment there LOL. I love that Wyoming was so progressive regarding women and their rights! oxoox

  40. Linda,

    I always love reading your post. They are so intersting. It is strange but this is the only book that I do not have of yours so I hope I win.

    You are one of my favorite authors

    Walk in harmony,

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