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Claudia Lefko: A hidden power of juries

Citizens cannot shut a corporation down, despite the public risk. Our legitimate concerns for life and limb, home and family — for the very earth we live on — cannot be legally considered.

I was in a Brattleboro Courtroom last month when six women from the Shut it Down affinity group went on trial in front of a jury of eight men and four women for the crime of trespassing on the grounds of the Entergy Corp. Theirs was a crime of civil disobedience, one of conscience where “reformer(s) working within the structure of the existing government … seek the re-evaluation of policy, not the destruction of the social contract.” (S.M. Bauer & P.J. Eckersrom)

They tried, as many activists do in these cases, to use a defense called “necessity.” They committed a minor crime to prevent a greater, more urgent possibility of harm. It is difficult to get a judge to accept this defense, and the judge at this trial did not allow it.

The judge and prosecution would not allow testimony about the plant or the nuclear industry; the case, rather, was about trespassing. What was allowed was the personal testimony of each of the women, about what had moved them to chain themselves to the plant gate on Aug. 30, 2011.

When asked, each woman gave her address as a distance from the plant. Betsey Corner lives in Colrain, within 10 miles of the plant —the “throwaway zone,” she said. All of the women live “down wind and downstream” within the 30 mile danger zone. They all worried about their health, that of their families and communities. They wondered what they would do if their homes and property were rendered uninhabitable by a nuclear disaster.

I had to leave before the jury instructions were given, but as I understand it, they were simple: Jurors were to decide if the women had committed the crime of trespass. What would happen, I wondered as I drove home, if the jury — all of whom lived in Windham County, where the trial was taking place, within a few miles of the plant — decided to ignore the judge’s instructions.

What if they had disagreed with him on the necessity of citizen action in the face of mounting evidence about the dangers Vermont Yankee? What if they also worried about the danger the plant poses to them? What would happen legally if they returned a not-guilty verdict?

Imagine that outcome, I thought.

It was attorney Bill Newman, on his WHMP morning show, who told me that indeed there is a possibility to do this and there is a legal term for it: jury nullification. It is, according to one Internet source, “a sanctioned doctrine of trial proceedings wherein members of a jury disregard either the evidence presented or the instructions of the judge in order to reach a verdict based upon their own consciences. It espouses the concept that jurors should be the judges of both law and fact.”

Although it is something that has been upheld in legal decisions, the judge, as I understand it, has no responsibility to inform jurors of this right.

So, let’s consider ourselves informed. As citizens on a jury, we have the right to act on our conscience in support of those who are putting themselves at risk of arrest on behalf of the “common good.” Indeed, another verdict is possible, as is another world, one where people rather than corporations are in charge of our country.

Claudia Lefko lives in Northampton.

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