When I was writing my first historical single title, KNIGHT ON THE TEXAS PLAINS, my editor asked me how they chose juries back in the 1800s so I had to do some research. My heroine, Jessie Foltry, was accused of murdering her first husband. She ran from the law and into Duel McClain’s arms. They subsequently married and set about raising a child that Duel had won in a poker game. As with most stories dealing with a character who runs, Jessie was tracked down. In this case by Duel’s brother no less and taken to stand trial. That’s when I knew I had to research juries and the legal system.
Jury members were either handpicked by the judge (which sometimes led to grossly unfair disadvantages if the judge had an ax to grind with either party) or names were drawn from a hat.
Fact: In 1970 the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that a jury panel of six did not violate the accused Sixth Amendment Rights and the defendant’s guilty verdict was upheld as Constitutional. I did not know this. I’d always thought twelve people comprised every jury.
Another thing that really struck me was learning about Jury Nullification (the process whereby a jury in a criminal case nullifies a law by acquitting a defendant regardless of the weight of evidence against the defendant.) In other words, nullification often happens when the jury believes some social issue is larger than the case itself. That’s happened pretty frequently.
Take the case of John Peter Zenger in 1733. Zenger was an editor and publisher of a New York newspaper. He printed another man’s article criticizing William Cosby, the Governor of New York. Zenger was arrested and tried for seditious libel. Although he was guilty of printing the anonymous article in the newspaper according to the law at the time, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict effectively nullifying the law. Zenger’s attorney, Andrew Hamilton, established the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libel if it can be proven, thus affirming freedom of the press in America.
That’s what happens to Jessie in Knight on the Texas Plains. The jury knew she was guilty of murdering her first husband but realized that she was justified in doing so and that she was protecting her own life. There wasn’t a law at the time against a man beating his wife but there should’ve been and they knew it.
Another fact: It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress passed the Jury Selection and Service Act. It reformed the selection process, mandating that a pool of jury names be selected from registered voters and that the names be randomly selected. I can’t believe it took that long. That’s astounding to me.
And lastly….In 1870 the first woman juror, Eliza Stewart of Laramie, Wyoming was chosen.
Do you know of any sensational cases that aroused your interest? O.J. Simpson’s trial comes to my mind.
The print version of the book is no longer available but it’s in the Amazon Kindle store with a new cover. Click HERE for the link. And don’t forget about FOREVER HIS TEXAS BRIDE in December!
Every week of November I’m giving away a western Christmas ornament so leave a comment.