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.
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.
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