Drug Policy

The Guy Was Guilty; the Cops Were Lying

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Gene Weingarten—for my money the best writer in journalism—was recently called for jury duty. He served on a case in which a D.C. man was charged with selling $10 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer. Weingarten was sure the man was guilty. He was also sure the cops were lying. In the Washington Post, Weingarten explains that, consequently, he was prepared to exercise his right to jury nullification.

As a juror, I was skeptical. As a citizen, I was angry. For one thing, I was mad about the whole case—the bewildering amount of police time and taxpayer money spent on prosecuting one guy for selling $10 worth of narcotics. But as a juror, I felt it was not my business to object to that. I would have been willing to convict a defendant despite those misgivings.

The police testimony was another matter. As witnesses, the officers had been supremely self-assured, even cocky; clearly, they'd been through this hundreds of times. As they passed the jury before and after testimony, they greeted us winningly. One of them winked at us, almost imperceptibly. Their testimony was clear, concise, professional and, in my view, dishonest.

I believe they feel themselves to be warriors fighting the good fight against bad people who have the system stacked in their favor. I believe they knew they had the right guy and were willing to cheat a little to assure a conviction.

I believe they had the right guy, too. But the willingness to cheat, I think, is a poisonous corruption of a system designed to protect the innocent at the risk of occasionally letting the guilty walk free. It's a good system, fundamental to freedom. I think a police officer willing to cheat is more dangerous than a two-bit drug peddler.

In his charge to the jury, the judge made it clear that if we found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt—which I had—it was our duty to convict. I was prepared to defy these instructions and acquit, in the interest of a greater good. There is actually a term for this: "jury nullification." I was going to nullify.

Good for him. As it turns out, Weingarten was selected as an alternate. But it appears a good number of his fellow jurors felt the same way. The jury hung, with 10 in favor of acquittal, two in favor of conviction.

D.C. jurors also appear to have engaged in nullification in a gun case early last year.