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Jury Power in Action

A single mother in Cleveland, Ohio went on trial for welfare fraud. She was charged with "stealing" $11,000 in cash and food stamps over a two-year period. Between June 1988 to January 1990 she is accused of working at a $6,000-a-year part time job emptying bedpans and bathing residents in a nursing home - and failing to report this income to the welfare department. Reporting the job would have cost her nearly all of the welfare benefits, including Medicaid.

The trial ended in a hung jury when one juror, the chairman of the Ohio Communist Party, voted not to convict. Communist Rick Nagin said the defendant, Patricia Bell Taylor, is a decent, hard-working woman who took welfare money she was not eligible for because she needed to feed her three children. "You have to show criminal intent," said Nagin. "I was arguing her intent was to survive. I said, 'No way is this woman a criminal!' This is ridiculous!" But Michael Telep, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor said stealing is stealing and Taylor must pay for her crime. He said the county intends to retry the case.

Hung juries are rare in welfare fraud cases, said Telep, blaming Nagin for the bizarre twist. "There were no facts that she was below the poverty level," he said. But Nagin countered: "my common sense told me she was poor and she did this to feed her family. Our great moral guardian (Telep) is saying you're not supposed to think that there are human beings involved and children and family."

Another juror Frederick Bosh, said both sides had points, "But the law is the law." But what this case illustrates is that "the law is the law" only when twelve members of a jury agree that such a law is fair and just. Jurors should be aware of their role in the justice system as guardians against tyranny. When jurors can be made to obediently convict their peers simply because the law is the law, to they are forgetting that "the law" is supposed to be the servant of the people, not the other way around! Telep said that during jury selection he didn't think Nagin's politics would affect the case. "But now I'm going to be a lot more careful in jury selection," he said.

One nationwide organization, the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA), is dedicated to educating and empowering juries to insure that the law maintains its accountability to the people. Their struggle is made difficult by conservatives who would like to see the power of juries weakened or eliminated. Find out how you can support FIJA's activism. Contact them at: FIJA, P.O. Box 59, Helmville, MT 59843; (406) 793-5550 (no collect calls, please). They publish a magazine called "FIJACTIVIST" (write or call for subscription rates).

Sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer,   People's Weekly World

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