It wasn’t Douglas Darrell’s Rastafarian religion that persuaded a Belknap County Superior Court jury to acquit him of growing marijuana recently, according to a woman who served on that jury.
“It was the fact that the system was coming down on a peaceful man, and it wasn’t right,” said Cathleen Converse, a 57-year-old retired accountant and grandmother who moved to New Hampshire with her husband in 2004 in the first wave of the Free State Project.
Converse was one of eight women on the jury that on Sept. 13 used a legal concept known as jury nullification to acquit Darrell, who is 59.
What disturbed jurors most was testimony that a Massachusetts National Guard helicopter hovering over Darrell’s Barnstead home in 2009 had discovered the marijuana plants he was growing for what was described as religious and medicinal use, said Converse, who also lives in Barnstead.
“I was actually appalled,” she said. “Because I live nearby, and a military helicopter over his house is over my house, as well.”
She said nullification “was in everyone’s mind from the beginning.”
That’s because defense attorney Mark Sisti had raised it in his closing arguments, after which both the prosecutor and Judge James O’Neill also addressed it, she said.
Converse said there was “very little” discussion about the Rastafarian religion. Instead, jurors focused first on whether Darrell was guilty of “manufacturing” marijuana; most felt he was.
Then they turned to the judge’s instructions about jury nullification, which they had asked for in writing. The foreman wrote them on the board:
“Even if you find that the State has proven each and every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you may still find the defendant not guilty if you have a conscientious feeling that a not guilty verdict would be a fair result in this case.”
As a Free Stater, Converse said, she was familiar with jury nullification and “gave a rundown” on the issue, including a state law that allows criminal defense attorneys to raise nullification as of Jan. 1.
They talked about how Darrell, who makes and tunes musical instruments, had never bought or sold drugs. And she said they kept coming back to the words on the board.
“‘Conscientious feeling’ is crucial,” she said.
Then a woman Converse considered one of the “stricter” people on the jury admitted she had “broken a law now and then,” she said. “And someone else said, ‘Yes, most of us have sped once or twice.’”
“And it was like the wheels were turning, that something that you don’t think is going to have consequences might have terrible consequences for peaceful people.”
“And suddenly people were saying, ‘He’s guilty, but I can nullify.’”
When the bailiff walked in to ask what the jurors wanted for lunch, they told him they had reached had a verdict.
Converse said jurors knew they had done something momentous. “We wondered what precedent it would set.”
Still, she said, “I knew that justice needed to be served. I knew I had to do this.”
The jury’s action has turned Converse into a sort of folk hero in the Free State movement. “It’s a little bigger than I’m comfortable with, to tell you the truth,” she said.
Sisti said he had no idea Converse was a Free Stater when he found her acceptable for the Darrell jury. “I don’t know if I would have selected her, knowing that,” he said.
But in the end, Sisti said, “I don’t think it made any difference.” He believes jurors “couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of convicting an individual for what was being presented before them.”
Converse said she didn’t feel she had to disclose that she was a Free Stater. “I was as unbiased as anybody,” she said. “But after all the facts were laid before us, I do not believe I could have convicted this man.”
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Shawne Wickham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.