Juris Prudence

When Gilpin County resident Laura Kriho was called for jury duty back in May 1996, she didn't want to go. She planned to call the courthouse to get out of it, until she spotted a notice on the back of the jury summons warning that a failure to appear could result in a sentence of up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. So she showed up at Gilpin County District Court as requested and subsequently served on a jury impaneled to decide a drug-possession case.

"I would have been better off taking the fine," Kriho says today.

That's because Kriho's jury service ultimately resulted in her arrest for contempt of court, placing her center stage in a precedent-setting, four-year-long criminal case that sputtered to an end earlier this month.

A believer in a juror's right to vote according to his conscience, Kriho had been the lone holdout for acquittal on the drug case. And after a Gilpin County district judge was forced to declare a mistrial, he and prosecutor Jim Stanley went after Kriho in what her attorney labels a demonstration of "prosecutorial and judicial vindictiveness."

Kriho's case spotlighted the issues of jury rights and jury nullification, since it pitted the justice system against a growing jury movement. The case was debated in newspapers and law journals throughout the United States and received attention abroad. Legal experts said Kriho was the first juror in 300 years to be prosecuted based on evidence regarding how the jury deliberated and voted.

Her case had reached as high as the Colorado Court of Appeals before it quietly came to a close on August 4, after Dave Thomas, district attorney for the First Judicial District, asked that the charges against her be dismissed.

It was not the rousing victory for truth and justice that Kriho's attorney, Paul Grant, had hoped for, but it was a victory nonetheless, and Grant last week expressed relief, "for Laura's sake," that it was over.

"On the other hand," Grant says, "I wish we'd gotten a cleaner decision from a higher court saying that these types of prosecutions are illegal...I was hoping that the state supreme court would come back with a decision saying that juries are so vital to the justice system that this type of prosecution will not be tolerated.

"But then," Grant adds, "the Supreme Court doesn't usually say things like that."

Kriho's troubles began after she and other jurors retired to a jury room to debate the fate of an eighteen-year-old girl who'd been caught with methamphetamine in her purse.

Kriho entered the deliberations armed with a personal agenda and some outside information. Kriho believes that drug cases involving first-time offenders are best handled by families and communities and that such issues do not belong in court. She told the group that jurors should make the right decision when the laws are wrong.

She also told her fellow jurors that she'd discovered on the Internet that a conviction on the drug charges could mean a four- to twelve-year prison sentence for the eighteen-year-old defendant. Jurors are not supposed to consider possible consequences in making their findings, a fact of which her fellow jurors were aware. Later, one of the jurors wrote a note to District Judge Kenneth Barnhill, asking if a juror could be disqualified for looking up sentencing guidelines and for saying that the court is no place to decide drug charges.

At that point, Barnhill has said, he felt he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. The jurors were dismissed.

Barnhill was not through with Kriho, however. According to Grant, the judge asked prosecutor Stanley to conduct a probe of possible jury misconduct. Two months later, Kriho was served with a summons notifying her that she was being charged with obstruction of justice for failing to reveal during voir dire that she had been arrested twelve years earlier for possession of LSD (for which she received a deferred sentence) and for failing to disclose that she was opposed to the enforcement of drug laws in some cases.

In October 1996, Chief District Judge Henry Nieto presided over a two-day contempt hearing. In handing down Kriho's sentence the following March, Nieto said, "No juror can be punished for their vote in deciding a case." What Nieto did instead was punish Kriho for refusing to speak up before the trial regarding her arrest and her concerns with the law. He ordered Kriho to pay a $1,200 fine.

It was an unusual "crime," notes Capp Sehota, co-founder of the Jury Rights Project. "Failure to volunteer answers to questions that were not actually asked during jury selection."

Grant appealed the case, and in April 1999, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed Kriho's contempt conviction, ruling that the trial court had improperly invaded the secrecy of the jury room by allowing testimony from other jurors about their deliberations.

But the appeals court left open the possibility that Kriho could face a new trial on contempt charges, this time without jury-room transcripts as evidence.

Instead, DA Thomas decided to bow out. Citing "the best interest of justice given the passage of time and evidence unavailability due to the appellate process," he asked that the charges against Kriho be dismissed. First Judicial District Chief Judge Thomas Woodford signed the motion August 4.

"The rulings in the appellate court would have made it more difficult to try," says Pam Russell, a spokeswoman for the DA's office.

"Ultimately, I think it was a wise course for the DA to take," says Grant. "I'm sure he did not want to suffer further embarrassment. This case could have dragged on for years. There could have been another trial, another appeal. Who knows when it would have ended. It was nice of the DA to throw in the towel."

Although Grant says he doesn't think other jurors will face the same type of legal problems Kriho did, he believes attorneys will continue to use jury selection "to eliminate independent-minded jurors, and more potential jurors will be questioned about their beliefs and attitudes so they can eliminate jurors who think for themselves and who don't blindly follow the government line."

As for Kriho, she says the next time she gets called for jury duty, "I'm going to bring a lawyer."