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.