About five years ago, I was on a jury in a criminal case in Colorado.
Those memories came back to me yesterday with the news that organic egg farmer Alvin Schlangen was found not guilty by a jury in Hennepin County, Minnesota.
This outcome had to be a crushing disappointment for food safety officialdom in the State of Minnesota, which is almost always on top of these things. They were quick to issue a statement saying the jury verdict did not make raw milk safe or make it open season for food safety violators.
But, it also set me thinking about a story I wrote not so long ago about a possible jury nullification strategy being advanced at the Falls Church, Virginia-based Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Was the verdict on Schlangen jury nullification?
An organization that promotes jury nullification seems to think so. The Fully Informed Jury Association, based in Helena, MT, issued a statement over the weekend applauding the jury’s verdict in the Schlangen raw milk case. It said he’d be charged with “victimless offenses.”
Being on a jury is a truly interesting experience. I know no two juries are the same. Trial lawyers fear juries only because they are so unpredictable. And for all the analysis that is done around juries, and seating juries, understanding them remains elusive.
But being on a jury gives one a perspective for what can go on behind those closed doors. One lesson I learned from being on a jury is that most jurors do not want to send people to jail who aren’t mean or violent.
The jury I was on clearly did not at the onset want to send a hapless middle aged guy who was also a meth-head to jail, especially after he buddied up to all of us while serving as his own defense counsel.
But we did send him to jail because that’s where you go after being convicted for robbery, resisting arrest and intent to manufacture meth. But the deliberations required were amazing.
So juries do it, if they must, and our prisons contain many who are neither mean nor violent as a result.
In Colorado, juries hearing criminal cases are guided by lists of required elements that must be proven for a conviction on a specific crime. Without these check lists, you are really left with the narrative that the lawyers spin for the juries.
Both the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and the raw-milk promoting Weston A. Price Foundation helped with the defense, and they may have had a hand in enlisting Hansen, but he is an independent St. Paul attorney with an impressive decade’s worth of experience.
His trial strategy was to paint an entirely different picture for the jury. His client was just sitting around with a bunch of like-minded friends, maybe on a porch someplace. Everybody planned to pick up raw milk at the Amish farm, and then Alvin just told everybody he was going there and could pick it for everybody.
They don’t call it “Minnesota Nice” for nothing. People do that kind of thing for their friends and neighbors all the time.
“Dat so?” you might say.
Yea sure, you betcha,” I’d reply.
From there we’d start talking about how that Minnesota Department of Agriculture is getting too big for its britches.
MDA moved on the Freedom Farms Coop, which reportedly had about 130 households signed up in the Minneapolis urban area who longed for natural eggs and milk and other farm products. Schlangen filled some of these orders, presumably those including his eggs, and delivered with them raw milk from the Amish farm.
Hansen artfully painted a picture that it was just all done privately among friends with no business or corporate structure. Just a good buddy bringing “nutrient-dense” food to people demanding it.
Jury nullification? Maybe, but my gut tells me no. The sense I have is Hansen was the better attorney in that courtroom. He knew the audience. Alvin Schlangen looks to me to be a salt-of-earth kind of guy.
At home in Stearns County, he still faces six additional misdemeanor counts for alleged violations of Minnesota laws involving food and dairy farms. It will be interesting to see of a jury from the more rural Stearns County is open to the narrative as were jurors from the big city.© Food Safety News