Judge finds ‘increasing’ difficulty in seating marijuana juries

David Edwards
Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

It’s becoming more and more difficult to find juries that will produce a guilty verdict in marijuana cases, according to a judge in Missoula County, Montana.

“I think it’s going to become increasingly difficult to seat a jury in marijuana cases, at least the ones involving a small amount,” District Judge Dusty Deschamps said Friday after potential jurors refused to convict a Montana man for having a 1/16 of an ounce of Marijuana.

An April 23 search of Touray Cornell’s home found several used marijuana joints, a pipe, and some residue. He’s is also charged with the criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.

Cornell’s neighbors had called the police because they thought he was selling drugs. The defendant admitted in an affidavit that he had distributed small amounts of marijuana.

One potential juror after another told the court that the would not convict the man for possessing a 1/16 of an ounce.

Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul told the Associated Press that the jurors staged “a mutiny.”

“District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree,” the Missoulianreported. “Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.”

“I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t know if we can seat a jury,” Deschamps said.

Paul and Cornell’s attorney, Martin Elison, worked out a plea deal during recess.

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,” Elison wrote in the plea agreement.

Cornell entered an Alford plea Friday, not admitting guilt, but acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict him. The judge sentenced Cornell to 20 years with 19 of them suspended. Cornell was given credit for the 200 days already served.

“I think it’s going to become increasingly difficult to seat a jury in marijuana cases, at least the ones involving a small amount,” the judge said.

“It’s kind of a reflection of society as a whole on the issue,” he added.

“If more potential jurors start turning down nonviolent drug cases, our drug laws will change,”Jason Kuznicki wrote for the blog The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Jury nullification often happens when a law is perceived to be unjust. During alcohol prohibition, nearly 60 percent of trials were nullified by jurors. Nullification was also often used in cases involving the Alien and Sedition and Fugitive Slave Acts.

In a more recent case, George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf suspectedthat jury nullification was used to spare former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.