A jury pool in Montana’s Missoula County District Court late last week took a stand against what some of them saw as wasteful prosecution. Police seized a small amount of marijuana while searching Touray Cornell’s home back in April, and potential jurors in his trial made it clear to the judge and the prosecution they weren’t about to convict him for one-sixteenth of an ounce.
It became clear to Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul that he couldn’t seat a jury, so he and Cornell’s defense attorney worked out a plea agreement in which Cornell did not admit guilt. Paul later called it a “mutiny.” Guess which word made every headline discussing this case:
But this wasn’t a “mutiny” by any means. This was a handful of educated potential jurors simply expressing an enlightened opinion about a drug that’s less harmless than tobacco and alcohol. After one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case, “District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands,” according to the Billings Gazette. “A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.”
In the end, the plea memorandum read: “Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on Dec. 16, 2010, 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.”
There’s a process called “jury nullification” in which a jury reaches a verdict contrary to the weight of evidence. This wasn’t exactly that. But this jury pool is surely to be commended for taking a stand against something they see as a woefully ridiculous prosecution at a time when very real criminals lurk.
Before we celebrate these potential jurors too much, there is a downside to this story. While it gives hope to the future of this country that maybe we won’t be so quick to criminalize small-time pot smokers, it’s probably true that Cornell is an armed drug dealer, something the jury did not hear because it never made it that far.
According to the Billings Gazette, Because the case never went to trial, members of the jury pool didn’t know that Cornell’s neighbors had complained to police that he was dealing from his South 10th Street West four-plex, according to an affidavit in the case. After one neighbor reported witnessing an alleged transaction between Cornell and two people in a vehicle, marijuana was found in the vehicle in question.
The driver and passenger said they’d bought it from Cornell, the affidavit said. A subsequent search of his home turned up some burnt marijuana cigarettes, a pipe and some residue, as well as a shoulder holster for a handgun and 9mm ammunition. As a convicted felon, Cornell was prohibited from having firearms, the affidavit noted.
Cornell admitted distributing small amounts of marijuana and “referred to himself as a person who connected other dealers with customers,” it said. “He claimed his payment for arranging deals was usually a small amount of marijuana for himself.”
Potential jurors also couldn’t know about Cornell’s criminal history, which included eight felonies, most of them in and around Chicago several years ago. According to papers filed in connection with the plea agreement, Cornell said he moved to Missoula to “escape the criminal lifestyle he was leading,” but he’s had a number of brushes with the law here.
So what do you think? Is ignoring the law a good idea in certain circumstances if your ideology permits, or should we always uphold the letter of the law? Weigh in below…