Metro billboard advocating jury nullification concerns local prosecutors


Commuters at the Judiciary Square Metro station walk past a new ad billboard calling for jurors to rule for jury nullification, on Oct. 24 in Washington. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

The illuminated billboard in the Judiciary Square Metro station near the F Street entrance was strategically placed.

Prospective jurors who take the subway to D.C. Superior Court and exit near the National Building Museum see these words: “Good jurors nullify bad laws” and “You have the right to ‘hang’ the jury with your vote if you cannot agree with other jurors.”

Since the billboard went up this month, District prosecutors have been worried that the message could sway their cases. In the past week alone, they have asked judges in three ­cases to ensure that jurors had neither seen nor been influenced by the billboard.

The billboard is part of a growing national campaign to encourage jurors who disagree with a law, or think a punishment is too harsh, to vote for acquittal. Kirsten Tynan of the Montana-based Fully Informed Jury Association, whose name and Web address is included on the billboard, said the nonprofit group generally challenges crimes it calls “victimless,” such as vandalism by graffiti or gun possession.

James Babb, a Philadelphia-based graphics artist who organized a fundraising campaign to put up the billboard, said he raised $3,000 in about a week through Facebook and other ­social-media sites. He said he is concerned about laws that he thinks are too restrictive.

“People are going to jail for weed,” Babb said. “Things are getting so weird. There needs to be this final safeguard to protect us from a tyrannical government.”

Babb’s group has added a similar message on two pillars in Archives station, another Metro stop near the courthouse. Both displays are scheduled to be up for about a month. Babb said he also plans to place signs in other cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

Supporters of jury nullification in several cities have raised the ire of judges and prosecutors. In New York last year, an 80-year-old man was charged with jury tampering after passing out fliers about jury nullification to courthouse visitors; the case was later dismissed by a federal judge.

Locally, prosecutors have been scrambling to ensure that the billboard’s message doesn’t influence their ­cases.

In a gang-related murder trial set to begin this week, prosecutors filed a motion asking the judge to question potential jurors about whether they had seen the billboard. They also requested that the judge remind jurors that their verdict should not be influenced by whether they agree or disagree with the law.

In their memo, prosecutors Todd Gee and Emily Miller wrote that jurors who see the billboard may think “they don’t have to abide by an oath” and that it could encourage them “to hang and to learn about the concept of jury nullification.”

In another recent murder case, the jury had already been sworn in and the trial was underway when prosecutors alerted Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon to the billboard. Dixon, according to people familiar with the case, then asked the jurors if they had seen the billboard. No one said they had.

Days later, the jury found the defendant, Grant Johnson, 39, of Bladensburg, Md., guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of 32-year-old Ricardo Lancaster during a drug deal in 2012, prosecutors said.

And in a trial involving an assault with a deadly weapon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brittain Shaw asked the judge to question potential jurors about the billboard. Days later, the jury found the defendant, Charles Link, 53, guilty in a knife attack in November that left one man injured.

The billboard also comes as Adam Kokesh, a Fairfax County-based gun rights activist, is preparing to go to trial after posting an Independence Day video on YouTube of himself apparently loading a shotgun in Freedom Plaza. He had been scheduled to go to trial Thursday, but the case was pushed back to at least Nov. 18.

Kokesh’s supporters have advocated for jury nullification in his case.

Tynan said the Metro billboard was not directly aimed at the Kokesh, who pleaded not guilty to carrying a pistol without a license, but she said that his case was the kind her organization targeted. “It’s a victimless trial,” Tynan said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said there has been no organized effort by prosecutors to address the billboard, but instead prosecutors have raised the issue on a case-by-case basis.

“Jurors in the District of Columbia play an important role in holding accountable the criminals who threaten and harm the people who live, work and visit our city,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement. But he added, “Jurors who ignore the law or refuse to follow the judge’s instructions embolden criminals who believe that they can get away with breaking the law and do harm to the community without any repercussion.”

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of slain federal intern Chandra Levy.
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