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Closing Argument from The Seat Belt Case Jury Trial, 7 December 2005
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
Thomas Jefferson said, "I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution." Let me repeat that. I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution." Our founding fathers understood that the reason we have trial by jury in this country is to allow the people to be the last arbiter of the law as it applies in a specific case. You, here, sitting in the jury box right now have more power than a king or a queen, more power than the president of the United States. You, here, are the law.
We have a great heritage in this regard. Our right to free speech, free assembly, and freedom of religion, and trial by jury dates back to 1670, in a case tried by jury in jolly ole England, the famous and historically pivotal case of William Penn--yes the same William Penn who eventually founded Pennsylvania.
William Penn had been preaching in public, advocating his brand of religion, that of which we commonly refer to as the Quaker religion. There was only one recognized religion in England at the time, that of the Anglican church. To promote or exercise any other religion was against the law.
William Penn was arrested for this and went to trial. The jury, headed by jury foreman Edward Bushel, found William Penn not guilty even though they recognized the fact that Penn had violated the law. The jury considered the law unjust and exercised their power to nullify the law in that particular case. The judge, not liking the verdict, fined the jurors until and unless they reversed their decision. Edward Bushel refused to pay the fine. The judge put him and the rest of the jurors in prison without meat, drink, fire, or tobacco. Two months later on a writ of habeas corpus filed in the Court of Common Pleas, the Lord Chief Justice of London ruled that jurors could not be coerced in rendering a verdict, the jurors were freed, and William Penn was acquitted.
Move forward, 65 years later, in Colonial America, this most cherished right of trial by jury was tested and strengthened once again.
John Peter Zenger was a publisher in colonial New York. Governor Cosby was known as a corrupt and oppressive ruler. Zenger decided to publish articles and parodies to demonstrate the corrupt and oppressive nature of the Governor. He went beyond what any publisher in the past had done criticizing government. He was arrested for seditious libel, a charge of bringing contempt or exciting dissatisfaction against the government--even if the statements were true.
Zenger's lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, did not dispute the facts of the case. Instead, he appealed to the jury's sense of right and wrong, referred to freedom of speech being necessary to a free people--the ability to speak out against the government. The jury ignored the law and voted not guilty.
Our founding fathers understood how important was this right and power of jurors, to be the last arbiter of the law in a specific case. And that is why they put in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the US Constitution, as a last nonviolent check and balance on the power of government.
We know this to be true because we know that the first Chief Judge of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice John Jay, who was also one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, charged the jury the following way in the first jury case to go in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Georgia vs. Brailsford. I quote:
"It may not be amiss here, gentlemen, to remind you of the good old rule, that on the question of fact, it is the province of the jury, and on the question of law, it is the province of the court to decide . . . . it is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that the courts are the best judges of law. But, it must be observed that by the same law which recognizes this reasonable distribution of jurisdiction, you have nevertheless a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy . . . both objects are lawfully within your power of decision."
Fellow free American citizens, this right and power of juries has been used judiciously over the ages, whether it be for acquitting people for harboring runaway slaves in the 1850s, whether it be to acquit those who protested the draft during the Viet Nam War era, whether it be to acquit people who have been brought before the federal government courts by the IRS, juries have stood up and said "No" to government.
So that brings us here today. On what may seem a trivial matter to some of you--a seat belt case. The prosecution would have you believe that this is a simple matter. Did I or did I not wear my seat belt? But that issue begs a far deeper question, a far more important question to every one of us who really believes in liberty.
Do you accept or reject this governmental limitation on our right to make our own decisions about safety? Can the state legitimately seize from us the right to answer for ourselves such a basic personal question concerning our private, peaceful conduct?
Whose life is it anyway? Do we own ourselves, or are we a cog in the machine of government? Is not freedom meaningless if we can't make our own decision in this regard. Founding father, John Adams thought so. He said, "We hold that each man is the best judge of his own interest."
For me, not to have this choice to determine what is safe for myself–or if I so choose, to not be safe--as long as I don't infringe on the equal rights of others to the same– is the opposite of what a meaningful life should be.
To be forced into what amounts for me a spiritual toll,
To click-it in coercion, with that routine act,
Becomes a certain death of my soul.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I choose life.. Life without responsible freedom–a responsible freedom that includes choice, and yes, a health safety choice, seat belt choice, is no life at all.
Some say seat belts save lives, and maybe in the aggregate they do. But seat belt laws do not save lives, in fact they do the opposite. There is one state in this land of the free, that has no mandatory seat belt law,–the state of New Hampshire. Ever since the other states have passed mandatory seat belt laws, New Hampshire has shown the highest increase in highway safety–from a ranking of twenty-fifth among the fifty states before all the other states implemented a seat belt law, to now, fifth, after all other states have implemented a seat belt law, but New Hamshire has not. In all the other states, the mandatory seat belt laws have had no effect.
But of course, irrespective of that being true, it really is not the main issue. Certainly not the issue for government to decide. Let insurance companies charge higher rates if they determine that the use of seat belts save lives. Then we will all be free to choose what insurance company to use, and keep our own life safety choices in tact. No, the real issue here is--who owns your life? Is it yours or is it government's? When you decide this issue in the jury room, I am not so much asking you to vote not guilty--for me--for I will remain free whether behind bars or behind the wheel. I have lived a life of freedom and I will continue to do so until my dying days. Because I understand that if government makes my choice for me, I am no longer free. I am just the living dead--an automaton with no self direction. So I will always choose freedom, regardless of what oppression government has in store for me. No, I ask more of you to vote not guilty for yourselves. Free yourselves of the almost limitless government oppression that invades your daily lives.--free yourself from that tribute you pay to government, the tribute that government continually exacts from us in these petty revenue- producing traffic courts. Municipalities that collect our hard-earned dollars in fines for an offense that hurts no one as the seat belt law does, makes those municipalities just modern highwayman robbers.
Say "yes" to choice. Say "yes" to seat belt choice. Say yes, to freedom. Remember, I wasn't speeding. I wasn't driving recklessly. I wasn't endangering the lives of others. I was just minding my own business driving down the road. Send a message. Say "no" to control. Exercise your historical right and power as a juror. Vote not guilty.
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