It all began last Thursday, when a group of prospective jurors in Missoula were seated for a two-day trial of a repeat offender by the name of Teuray Cornell, whom the local police had arrested and charged with selling marijuana, a felony, and possession of a small amount of the drug, a misdemeanor.
To seat a 12-person jury, Judge Robert L. Deschamps III of Missoula County District Court had called a passel of Montanans to serve, and 27 had arrived at court on Dec. 16. So far, so good.
But after the charges were read, one of the jurors raised a hand.
“She said, ‘I’ve got a real problem with these marijuana cases,’ ” Judge Deschamps recalled on Wednesday. “And after she got through, a couple more raised their hands.” All told, five jurors raised questions about marijuana prosecution.
And so it was that Mr. Cornell soon became the lucky recipient of a case of almost-a-jury nullification, as prosecutors soon found themselves cutting a deal to dismiss the misdemeanor possession charge out of fear that they would not be able to find 12 jurors in this marijuana-friendly state to convict.
Mr. Cornell did plead guilty to the felony, but by Wednesday, what appeared to be a case of juror revolt, which was first reported by The Missoulian, was being trumpeted by pro-marijuana Web sites as yet another sign of the nation’s increasingly liberal attitude toward the drug. The Cornell case had also pleased Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who said that jurors’ objections to drug laws were “popping up more and more,” especially in regards to marijuana.
“There is no other criminal law on the books that is enforced so harshly and pervasively that almost half of Americans don’t think should be a crime in the first place,” said Mr. Nadelmann, whose group advocates for more liberal drug laws. “That’s why this happens.”
Indeed, marijuana advocates see all manner of positive signs, including the 46 percent of Californians who voted to legalize the drug in November — for Proposition 19, which lost — and growing support nationwide, especially in Western states, where 58 percent now support legalization, according to an October Gallup survey.
In Montana, whose voters legalized medical use of marijuana in 2004, the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Service’s survey on drug use found an estimated 12 percent of adults had used the drug during the previous year.
John Masterson, the founder and director of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said smoking marijuana “is essentially a mainstream activity” in Missoula.
“It’s something that people of all walks of life enjoy responsibly,” Mr. Masterson said. Fred Van Valkenburg, the Missoula county attorney, had no comment on the case. But Judge Deschamps said he had “never had this large a number of people express this large a number of reservations” about a marijuana case.
“This was something I’d never encountered before,” the judge said. “It does raise a question about the next case.”
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