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Free Political Institutions

Their Nature, Essence, and Maintenance

An Abridgment and Rearrangement of Lysander Spooner's "Trial by jury"





3, Amen Corner, E.C.


      The trial by jury must, if possible, be construed to be such that a man can rightfully sit in a jury and unite with his fellows in giving judgment. But no man can rightfully do this, unless he hold in his own hand alone a veto upon any judgment or sentence whatever to be rendered by the jury against a defendant, which veto he must be permitted to use according to his own discretion and conscience, and not bound to use according to the dictation of either legislatures or judges.

      The prevalent idea that a juror may, at the mere dictation of a legislature or a judge, and without the concurrence of his own conscience or understanding, declare a man "guilty" and thus in effect license the government to punish him; and that the legislature or the judge, and not himself, has in that case all the moral responsibility for the correctness of the principles on which the judgment was rendered, is one of the many gross impostures by which it could hardly have been supposed that any sane man could ever have been deluded, but which governments have, nevertheless, succeeded in inducing the people at large to receive and act upon.

      As a moral proposition, it is perfectly self-evident that, unless juries have all the legal rights that have been claimed for them in the preceding chapters.that is, the rights of judging what the law is, whether the law be a just one, what evidence is admissible, what weight the evidence is entitled to, whether an act were done with a criminal intent, and the right also to limit the sentence, free of all dictation from any quarter-they have no moral right to sit in the trial at all, cannot do so without making themselves accomplices in any injustice that they may have reason to believe may result from their verdict. It is absurd to say that they have no moral responsibility for the use that may be made of their verdict by the government, when they have reason to suppose it will be used for purposes of injustice.

      It is, for instance, manifestly absurd to say that jurors have no moral responsibility for the enforcement of an unjust law, when they consent to render a verdict of guilty for the transgression of it, which verdict they know, or have good reason to believe, will be used by the government as a justification for inflicting a penalty.

      It is absurd also to say that jurors have no moral responsibility for a punishment inflicted upon a man against law, when, at the dictation of a judge as to what the law is, they have consented to render a verdict against their own opinion of the law.

      It is absurd, too, to say that jurors have no moral responsibility for the conviction and punishment of an innocent man, when they consent to render a verdict against him on the strength of evidence, or laws of evidence, dictated to them by the court, if any evidence or laws of evidence have been excluded, which they (the jurors) think ought to have been admitted in his defence.

      It is absurd to say that jurors have no moral responsibility for rendering a verdict of "guilty" against a man for an act which he did not know to be a crime, and in the commission of which, therefore, he could have had no criminal intent, in obedience to the instructions of courts that "ignorance of the law (that is, of crime) excuses no one."

      It is absurd, also, to say that jurors have no moral responsibility for any cruel or unreasonable sentence that may be inflicted even upon a guilty man, when they consent to render a verdict which they have reason to believe will be used by the government as a justification for the infliction of such a sentence.

      The consequence is that jurors must have the whole case in their hands, and judge of law, evidence, and sentence, or they incur the moral responsibility of accomplices to any injustice which they have reason to believe will be done by the government on the authority of their verdict.

Return to Chapter 5          Continue to Chapter 7          Return to Table of Contents

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