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Juror's Rights Are Dealt a Blow
by Jay Hauser
Feb 13, 1997
Originally published in the Boulder Weekly
A long downward spiral for jurors in Colorado may have begun in the wake of the conviction of Nederland resident Laura Kriho. In October 1996, Kriho was tried on charges of contempt of court, obstruction of justice and disobedience to an order of the trial court for causing a hung jury two months earlier. Four months after the trial, First District Judge Henry Nieto issued a ruling in the case Monday.

In a highly unorthodox move, Nieto issued a nine page ruling, outlining the charges against Kriho, who was convicted only of obstruction of justice - the vaguest charge of the three, according to Kriho's attorney, Paul Grant.

"It's obvious the court went to great lengths to be very careful in analyzing the case and yet the bottom line is that the court has found Laura Kriho guilty of committing a crime which the court has created," he says. That crime? Not disclosing certain issues that may have been relevant to the case. Kriho says she was convicted for failing to tell court officials that she did not believe in laws regarding drugs, that she was involved in the Colorado Hemp Initiative and that she had knowledge of jury nullification techniques. But she says she had no idea those things were important to Gilpin County Judge Kenneth Barnhill or prosecutor Jim Stanley.

"They never pointed out a question which I lied to," says Kriho. "All the questions he cites in his ruling were asked when I was sitting in the audience. Kind of half falling asleep."

"I'm not surprised there was a conviction," says Grant. "I thought they had no basis whatsoever on the clearly defined legal issues. I think the judge was committed to conviction. At the end of the trial that's the way I felt. I wouldn't have been surprised to get this conviction four months ago. I am surprised it took this long," Grant says.

Larry Dodge, founder of the Fully Informed Jury Association, a jury watchdog group, says Kriho's conviction should be a wake-up call to all Americans.

"It's part of a downward spiral of decisions that are damaging our jury system. There have been a lot of attacks on our right to a trial by jury and this is just one in a series," he says. Others, he says, include a recent ruling to only offer jury trials to defendants accused of crimes which would receive more than six months punishment if convicted and "super-majority" jury decisions, where only nine to 10 people on a 12-person jury have to come to a consensus.

"Let's say a black man was accused of a crime and there were two blacks on the panel ... with a super-majority decision, they could be effectively ignored," he points out.

Kriho says she is surprised that she was convicted on a charge that state officials could not explain at her October trial.

"They were never able to define for us what that was. My lawyer asked specifically, 'what is this charge, what does this mean, what did she do that obstructed justice?' and they weren't able to say. Now I have nine pages that tell me, after the trial, when I don't have a chance to defend myself against it. Now I know what it is that they were trying to convict me of," Kriho says. "Nobody wins when you go to court, except the lawyers."

The surprises in the case may continue. In his ruling Nieto does not set a specific date to sentence Kriho on the obstruction of justice charge. If past performance is any measure of the future, it may be a while before a sentence is imposed. By state statute, Nieto should have issued a ruling in the case within 90 days of taking it under advisement; by not doing so, he should legally lose his quarterly salary. Many legal minds in the state, however, say that will never happen.

Grant says the conviction should give every potential juror in the state pause. In convicting Kriho and by creating a new law, jurors who think independently, or who have skeletons in the closet can be targeted for their beliefs and their lifestyles.

"It's now been determined that jurors have a legal duty to confess to any prior sins in their life and to their political beliefs, so that the court can decide whether or not it wants them on the jury. Even though the juror hasn't been asked these questions, this case suggests they now have a legal duty to provide that information, even if they are not asked, and it's criminal if they don't."

And, Grant adds, he sees chilling ramifications on the basic freedoms Americans enjoy at least in the courtroom. Ultimately, he says, Nieto's ruling will cow people from having independent thoughts or for standing up for what they believe in the jury room.

Dodge agrees: "Juries on the one hand are lauded for their ability to be the conscience of the community. And then they are told 'but you can't use your conscience, you're basically a fact machine.' Well, if that's the case, you might as well use a computer. The whole point of having real people in there is they have all different kinds of attitudes, values, emotions and perspectives and so forth and they are charged with reaching a consensus. Putting everybody's perspectives into the soup and coming up with one answer. Once you start tampering with that and saying what you can think and what you can't, what you can say and what you can't say, and what you can know and what you can't know, you're just dissecting the system to where it is a masquerade for trial by government." Regardless of the sentence imposed, which could be six months in jail and thousands of dollars in fines, both Kriho and Grant say the case will be appealed.

"This case ought to be reversed, and wherever we have to go to get that done, even if it is just the court of public opinion, then we need to get it done," says Grant. "I think this case ought to (go to the Supreme Court) unless it's reversed sooner."

And the court of public opinion is clearly in Kriho's favor. The Internet has been buzzing for months with discussions about jurors' rights. Boulder Weekly articles on the case, disseminated on the Internet, precipitate several e-mails a day to our office from people across the country who express outrage about Kriho's treatment.