Jury Duty, Please!

Jury Duty, Please!

Sadly, Chicago wasn’t the sole source of strange Prohibition stories during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Other cities also had oddballs and fascinating stories, including Los Angeles.  Picture it, 1928 Los Angeles, California.  You receive the dreaded government-issued jury summons in the mail.  Maybe you’re not surprised that the crime in question is one of bootlegging, since it is, after all 1928.  You’re selected for the jury, despite your best efforts to be dismissed.  The trial proceeds in the normal fashion with attorneys arguing for both the United States government and the bootlegger’s defense.  Then you are sent to the jury room to deliberate.

Is the bootlegger guilty?  Well, probably if the evidence you’ve been shown is actually alcohol.  What if it’s not?  What if the prosecution is trying to pull a fast one on you?  Can you even trust the government in 1928? (Or ever?)

You have a conscientious duty to rule on a man’s life and liberty so you have  to take that seriously.  You swore an oath, right?   You don’t want an innocent man to go to prison.  There is, of course, one way to determine whether the evidence presented at trial is actually alcohol.

That’s right, nine out of twelve jurors tasted the evidence.  And then they finished it off.

Five women and four men were ultimately “excused” from jury duty when the judge became aware that the evidence had been depleted.  The case fell apart, because the jurors were drunk and the evidence was gone.  The new defendants became the nine jurors that tampered with evidence and became drunk during jury duty.

Surprisingly, this is about as far as the records of this story go.  Was the defendant retried by another, perhaps more pious jury?  Probably not.  What little evidence the prosecution had against the bootlegger was gone so unless they had a backroom supply of more booze supposedly lifted from the raid that captured this particular defendant, the case was probably drained.  This bootlegger probably just had the luckiest break in the history of jury trials.

What happened to the jurors?  Well it wasn’t actually illegal to drink alcohol during prohibition.  The 18th Amendment only prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol.  These jurors did none of those things and instead simply took advantage of the exception that swallowed the rule.  They may have been tried for tampering with evidence, but they could not have been convicted of violating the Volstead Act.

Perhaps fewer of us would go to great lengths to avoid jury duty if during deliberations you were treated to an open bar.  This particular situation proves that the government had absolutely no idea what it was doing with Prohibition.  If the root of the evil was caused by drinking alcohol, why was it legal to drink alcohol?  If you can’t verify that the evidence presented against a bootlegger is, in fact, alcohol, how were any ever to be convicted?

The next time you think the government knows best, think of these nine jurors who freed a probably guilty man and were tried in his absence.

Written by Amy Williams

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