NEW YORK (Reuters) - A judge tossed out a criminal charge on Thursday against a retired, 80-year-old chemistry professor who distributed pamphlets outside a federal courthouse urging potential jurors to follow their conscience.
Julian Heicklen, of Teaneck, New Jersey, was arrested in 2010 and charged with jury tampering after he distributed pamphlets advocating jury nullification outside Manhattan federal court.
The pamphlets called on potential jurors to follow their conscience in returning a verdict, and urged them to find a defendant not-guilty if they disagreed with the law in question or the government's conduct in the case.
Jury nullification allows jurors to acquit someone of criminal charges - even if they're technically guilty - because they don't think they deserve to be punished.
"Juries were instituted to protect citizens from the tyranny of government," said one pamphlet, submitted by the defense as part of a brief. "It is not the duty of the jury to uphold the law. It is the jury's duty to see that justice is done."
Prosecutors argued that jury nullification is unlawful, and that by encouraging it, Heicklen was undermining the good functioning of the court system.
In dismissing the indictment, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood said his activities fell short of violating the federal statute he was charged under.
"The court holds that a person violates the statute only when he knowingly attempts to influence the action or decision of a juror upon an issue or matter pending before that juror..." the opinion said.
Heicklen was not addressing a specific case or issue before an active juror, the opinion said.
The judge said jurors are routinely tasked by judges to follow detailed instructions and would have no trouble ignoring the pamphlets.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan declined to comment.
Heicklen faced up to six months in prison.
"My co-counsel, Mr. Heicklen, and I are all very pleased with the outcome," Steven Statsinger, one of Heicklen's court-appointed lawyers, said in an email.
(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Eileen Daspin and Doina Chiacu)