October 6, 2013
by Barrie Webster
This morning, we were treated to a presentation by Dr. Gary Bauslaugh on the profound importance of juries. Dr. Bauslaugh is a Humanist, writer, and editor who spent many years as a teacher and administrator in the British Columbia college and university system until his retirment in 1998. Gary has a PhD in Chemistry from McGill and has written scientific research papers as well as many articles for publications such as The Skeptical Inquirer, The Humanist, The Vancouver Sun, University Affairs, and Policy Options. From 2003 to 2008, he was the editor of the magazine, Humanist Perspectives (previously Humanist in Canada), and has served as president of the Humanist Association of Canada and as a member of the board of the Centre for Inquiry.
Dr. Bauslaugh has published more than 70 articles, scientific papers, and books on social justice issues involving science education, Humanism and its various dimensions, euthanasia in Canada, and ethics in sports and politics. He documented and defended the case of Evelyn Martens and her quest to die with dignity. He has illuminated the role of compassion and forgiveness within the Humanist life-stance. And he has described how certainty does not fit well with science and has shown how the role of science in public policy decisions has been diminishing as science education has weakened in Canada.
Gary has followed a number of key legal cases that have important implications for social justice for Canadians. A few years ago, he got to know Robert Latimer while he was under house arrest in Victoria. His book on the Latimer mercy-killing case (Robert Latimer, A Story of Justice and Mercy, James Lorimer and Co.) was published in 2010. He has now taken a longer integrated view of many such cases, and his talk this morning gave us a new look at how the Canadian justice system can be used with more compassion and effectiveness.
The key concept described in his talk and in his new book, The Secret Power of Juries, is ‘jury nullification’. This principle, a feature of the democratic system to provide checks and balances against unjust application of the strictly legal interpretation of the law, allows a jury to arrive at a decision leading to a sentence more closely fitting to the specific case being heard. Mandatory minimum sentences, increasingly called for under legislation introduced by the current federal government, can in some cases be too blunt an instrument. Dr. Bauslaugh, citing the example of the David Latimer case, informed us that it is not permitted in Canada for juries to be told that they have the power to disagree with the judge and the strict interpretation of the proof of guilt. When a compassionate response is warranted, the jury has the power, in fact, to declare that the defendant is ‘not guilty’. In the Latimer case, the jury wanted to be lenient but believed that they had no option but to declare that he was ‘guilty’. The result was that Latimer was given the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years and lifetime parole. Had they exercised their power, they might have declared him ‘not guilty’.
Juries are there to provide a societal values buffer in the criminal justice system. Ensuring that juries are independent and not able to be directed by a presiding judge to arrive at a particular verdict is something that must be defended in our society. Currently, this power of the jury to apply ‘jury nullification’ is treated as forbidden knowledge in Canada.
Dr. Bauslaugh is a member of VSHA; his book, The Secret Power of Juries, has just been published.