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Opprobrium in Birmingham

By Tyree Callahan

Jurors in the state of Alabama convicted first-time offender, Teresa Wilson of illegally selling a bottle of morphine for $150. At sentencing, the jurors learned what their verdict would cost the defendant.

Under state law, anyone convicted of illegally selling 56 grams or more of morphine, or a morphine compound, must be sentenced to life without parole. The same punishment is required for anyone who sells more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana or 22 pounds of cocaine.

"In this case the punishment definitely, definitely does not fit the crime," said juror Keith Loftis, who wrote state lawmakers and congressmen complaining about Mrs. Wilson's sentence.

Juror, Lee Smith, said he regrets finding Mrs. Wilson guilty because of the life sentence. "It's just not right," he said.

Judge J. Richmond Pearson, permanently imprisoned Mrs. Wilson, having no leeway under mandatory state sentencing laws. "I have no choice about these sentences, madam," he explained at her April 17 sentencing.

The tragedy here is Ms. Wilson could have been spared the harsh sentence and acquitted of charges if the jurors in this case had been informed of their rights as jurors (see our article on the Fully Informed Jury Association.)

Judge Pearson, perhaps vaguely remorseful, could have informed jurors of their Constitutional right to nullify laws in the course of trial. A judge has this ability to legislate from the bench. However, the system of checks and balances our founding fathers struggled so diligently to establish are long-forgotten.

In a system where checks and balances of governmental omnipotence by jury power has been effectively nullified since the turn of the century, it would hardly be a surprise to learn that judge Pearson simply forgot his power to inform the jury of their full rights as jurors.

As recently as 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the jury has an "unreviewable and irreversible power . . . to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge . . . " (U.S. vs. Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

Another quote from U.S. vs. Dougherty reads: "The fact that there is widespread existence of the jury's prerogative, and approval of its existence as a necessary counter to case-hardened judges and arbitrary prosecutors, does not establish as an imperative that the jury must be informed by the judge of that power."

If there is indeed a "widespread existence" of this jury power, why were the jurors in this case so distraught at the sentence? If the Alabama jurors had been fully informed, Teresa Wilson would not be facing life in prison.

Judge Pearson said, "I have no choice."

Judges: it's time to put honor back in "your honor" by informing jurors of their rights.

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