by Derek Gilna
Catherine Bernard, a former public defender in Laurens County, Georgia, who now practices criminal defense, won yet another “not-guilty” jury verdict in a marijuana possession trial on July 12, 2018, by utilizing a modified “jury nullification” approach. The term “jury nullification” refers to a refusal by juries to convict a defendant of violating a law that they might consider unfair or incorrectly applied.
Bernard’s client, Javonnie Mondrea McCoy, a well-respected local landscaper, was found not guilty by a Laurens County jury of manufacturing marijuana, as well as possession of other objects relating to the drug.
In 2017, Bernard won a similar not-guilty verdict for Antonia Willis, who was goaded into buying some joints from an undercover cop.
The strategy is simple, she said. “It’s very important to focus on the individual circumstances to emphasize the defendant’s role in the community.” However, she doesn’t like to use the term jury nullification. “I don’t really care for the term ‘nullification,’” she said. “It has a lot of historical baggage.”
Nonetheless, Bernard is not shy about planting the jury nullification seed in the jurors’ minds, by arguing that the power is in their hands to achieve the result they deem appropriate and right, rather than what the law specifically requires. Language in Georgia’s Constitution supports that argument.
Article 1, Section 1, Paragraph XI of the Georgia Constitution, states, “the jury shall be the judges of the law and the facts.” Georgia jury instructions also state that if jurors have doubt they have a “duty to acquit.”
There has arguably been in recent years a marked reluctance on the part of most jurors to acquit defendants on the basis of their own personal opinions. Indeed, the whole structure of both the state and federal justice systems seems designed to channel jury power into decisions favorable to the state, but in small communities in rural America, the community seems more comfortable standing up for their own values, rather than what the system wants to force them to do.
In the case of McCoy, the jury knew that the marijuana that he possessed was for his personal use to relieve chronic pain resulting from a serious 2003 beating that put him in a coma for two weeks.
As noted by attorney Bernard, “The jury appreciated his honesty throughout the case—including testimony at trial and statements to police—and recognized that a good, hard working man living a quiet life and not bothering anyone didn’t deserve a felony conviction for his actions.”
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