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NY judge tosses out jury nullification charges

A federal judge threw out charges Thursday against a man who urged jurors in multiple East Coast cities from Florida to New Hampshire to sometimes disregard the law and vote their conscience.

U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan tossed the case against Julian Heicklen, saying the First Amendment protects speech concerning judicial proceedings as long as the speech doesn't prevent fair and impartial justice. She noted that the essence of the First Amendment is that falsehoods are better exposed through discussion than through suppression.

Heicklen, a retired chemistry professor, was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for repeatedly handing out pamphlets to people outside a lower Manhattan courthouse near the World Trade Center site between October 2009 and May 2010, urging a practice known in legal circles as jury nullification.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Mermelstein had reminded Wood during oral arguments last month that Heicklin also has regularly distributed pamphlets in front of federal courthouses in Philadelphia, Boston, Tampa, Fla., Alexandria, Va., Concord, N.H., Springfield, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and Albany and White Plains in New York state. She called him a "significant threat" to the integrity of the judicial system.

Wood wrote that Heicklen did not violate the law by handing out pamphlets discussing the role of juries in society and urging jurors to follow their consciences regardless of instructions on the law. She said the law would be violated only if Heicklen tried to influence the action or decision of a juror on a specific case pending before that juror.

"The court's holding merely maintains the existing balance that federal courts have found between freedom of speech and the administration of justice," Wood said. "Attempts to tamper with a jury in order to influence the outcome of a trial or a grand jury proceeding are still clearly prohibited."

Heicklen was representing himself in the case, but defense lawyers Steven M. Statsinger and Sabrina Shroff argued the First Amendment issues before Wood.

Prosecutors declined to comment. Shroff said Heicklen and the lawyers "are delighted by this very important ruling and equally important victory."

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