The Watts case and jury nullification

I’ve been following, from a distance, the case of Canadian sci-fi writer Peter Watts. Watts’ car was searched at the US border and he was beaten, pepper sprayed, and detained when he questioned the purpose of the search. I’ve refrained from commenting until all the facts were out, but with the trial concluded there’s little to vindicate his treatment and the government’s refusal to release video of the incident lends no credence to the case against him.

A jury convicted Watts of resisting customs officials. Fortunately the sentencing judge chose not to imprison him. Read Peter’s own account for a humorous take on the hearing, his friend’s for a more touching one.

One of the jurors who convicted Watts went so far as to advocate against a jail sentence. Regrettably, the jurors felt that they had no choice but to throw Watts at the mercy of the judge. Two quotes from jurors:

As a member of the jury that convicted Mr. Watts today, I have a few comments to make. The jury’s task was not to decide who we liked better. The job of the jury was to decide whether Mr. Watts “obstructed/resisted” the custom officials. Assault was not one of the charges. What it boiled down to was Mr. Watts did not follow the instructions of the customs agents. Period. He was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his non compliance. He’s not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination. The customs agents escalted the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication. Unfortunately, we were not asked to convict those agents with a crime, although, in my opinion, they did commit offenses against Mr. Watts. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so we had to follow the instructions as set forth to us by the judge.



I believe your description of the trial and deliberations is more accurate than you could know. As a non-conformist and “libertarian” (who has had some experiences not unlike yours) I was not comfortable with my vote, but felt deep inside that it was consistent with the oath we took as jurors. I believe nearly all the jurors searched for a legitimate reason to vote differently. In the end it came down to the question “Was the law broken?”. While I would much rather have a beer and discussion with you than Officer B. I never the less felt obligated to vote my conscience. I also believe most, if not all, the jurors sincerely hope that you are handled with a great degree of leniency, we, unfortunately have no say in that matter.

It’s great that Watts was lucky enough to have a sympathetic judge but tragic that the jurors who convicted him felt compelled to do so. If there is ever a time for jurors to stand up against prosecutorial indiscretion it’s in cases in which the defendant has been abused by agents of the state. Cases like this are exactly why we have citizen juries. It’s not enough to convict and hope that, as happened here, the judge will make the right decision instead of siding with his fellow authorities. Even though Watts avoided a jail sentence he will have to bear the costs of a felony conviction, including infringements on his right to travel.

Unfortunately current law generally forbids discussion of jury nullification within the courtroom. I encourage everyone who may serve as a juror to read up on their rights and responsibilities so that they can render an informed verdict should they sit on a case such as this one.

Oregon’s low bar for conviction
Filan doesn’t go far enough
Dawkins doesn’t get juries