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Jurors Refuse to Sit in Montana Marijuana Trial

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By Jason Beahm on December 27, 2010 9:15 AM

Despite what shows like "Boston Legal" and "Law & Order" might lead you to believe, most trials are rather mundane. So it isn't everyday that you hear words like "mutiny," and "revolt," in reference to a jury trial. But that's just what happened in Missoula County, Montana. The Wall Street Journal called it "not-yet-a-jury nullification."

Before the Montana marijuana trial, potential jurors told Judge Dusty Deschamps and Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul that they would not convict anybody for having a small amount of marijuana. During voir dire (the process of selecting a jury), one juror after another said that possession of a 16th of an ounce of marijuana was inconsequential. In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting its time and money on such a case.

"I thought, 'Geez, I don't know if we can seat a jury,'" Judge Deschamps, who called a recess before the Montana marijuana trial, told the Missoulian. Defense attorney Martin Elison smelled blood and quickly worked out a plea agreement for defendant Touray Cornell in which he didn't admit guilt.

"Public opinion ... is not supportive of the state's marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances," said Elison in the plea agreement.

Could this be part of a new sweeping trend? Possibly. "I think it's going to become increasingly difficult to seat a jury in marijuana cases, at least the ones involving a small amount," Judge Deschamps told the Missoulian. "The American populace over the last 10 years or so has begun to believe in a majority that assigning criminal penalties for the personal possession of marijuana is an unjust and a stupid use of government resources," said John Masterson, who heads Montana National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In the U.S. potential jurors hold massive power through tactics that can make prosecution of certain cases impossible. In the case, the prosecution could have attempted to seat a hard line anti-drug jury. However, that would have been problematic as well because that would hardly be considered an unbiased jury.

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