A Jury of One’s Peers

Phillip Weidner wanted a jury of peers that fit snuggly within the boundaries of blue-collar, working-class folks. He made it clear that this was the best guarantee John Peel would get a fair trial. That’s why he wanted the jury pay increased — it was a way of ensuring that working folks could afford to sit at a (potentially long) trial without jeopardizing their seasonal income. That’s why he kept fighting to increase their numbers through the appellate courts of Alaska.

Phillip Weidner (l) and Mary Anne Henry, Ketchikan Superior Court
(copyright Hall Anderson)

But some context is in order. Some folks take the term “peers” quite literally. In its origins that was the case: The term “jury of peers” comes from England. It established that members of the nobility were tried by a jury comprised of their fellow nobles (their peers). They abhored the alternative, which was trial by the King.

Technically speaking, we don’t have that (nobility or Kings). So that’s the first accommodation we have to make to reality. Our jury rights come from the U.S. Constitution.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. constitution specifically guarantees the rights of criminal defendants to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial jury, and the right to know who your accusers are and the nature of the charges and evidence against you. [1]

When it comes to trials, that means we have the right to “an impartial jury” drawn from the surrounding region. That, in turn, has come to mean that a broad cross section of the community is eligible to serve on a jury. [2]

To that end, U.S. courts have said that jurors should include a wide spectrum of the population. Jury selection may not exclude those of a particular race or background or to otherwise intentionally narrow the range of possible jurors. It does not mean that women are only to be tried by women, or African-Americans only by African-Americans or average working people only by working people. [3]

Given that context, it was hardly surprising that the courts turned away Phillip Weidner’s attempt to more narrowly define jury composition. But his arguments were not without merit. A long trial could indeed place undo pressures on some jurors. An understanding of life on a commercial fishing boat seemed a necessary component in a mass murder that turned on those questions. And for a defense attorney who believed that the government itself was on a trial, a raft of bureaucrats was anathema.

There was, however, another truth. Almost everyone in Ketchikan either knew someone associated with commercial fishing or had fished themselves. It was inescapable. In Ketchikan, fishing came first.

  1. Sixth Amendment, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School
  2. Finding A Jury of Your Peers is Actually Pretty Complicated (NPR)
  3. Law.com Legal Dictionary

Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.


Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE. True crime from Epicenter Press.

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