Bushel’s Case 1670 – Landmark Ruling on the Role of Jurors
King v. Penn and Mead, William Penn (1644–1718), John Vaughan (1603–1674)
A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.
—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
In August 1670, William Penn and William Mead were charged with “unlawfully and tumultuously” assembling to preach and speak during a Quaker worship session on London’s Gracechurch Street. William Penn, who later founded the Colony and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and William Mead were charged with “unlawfully and tumultuously” assembling to preach and speak during a Quaker worship session on London’s Gracechurch Street. The jury found Mead not guilty and Penn convicted at the conclusion of King V. Penn and Mead at the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). The outraged judges refused to accept the decision and told the jurors to keep deliberating. The jury was sent back with the warning that “you shall not be dismissed until we have a decision that the court will accept; and you shall be imprisoned up, without meat, drink, fire, or smoke…. With God’s aid, we’ll get a decision, or you’ll starve to death.”
The jury returned two days later, finding both defendants not guilty. For contempt of court, the judge immediately imprisoned all twelve jurors. One of the jurors, Edward Bushel, refused to pay the fine required for his release. Instead, he petitioned the Court of Common Pleas for a writ of habeas corpus, contesting the legality of his detention. He was released two months later after the court approved the writ.
The case of Bushel resulted in a landmark ruling on the role of jurors. Lord Chief Justice Vaughan declared the fines and imprisonment imposed unconstitutional and held that a jury could not be punished for its decision, effectively ending judges’ ability to control verdicts based on political whim and establishing the jury’s independent power, which Blackstone refers to as “the sacred bulwark of our liberties.” Bushel’s Case established the concept of jury nullification, in which a jury overturns an unconstitutional statute by declaring a defendant not guilty, regardless of whether the jury believes the prisoner is guilty precisely by the wording of the law.
Peremptory Challenges to Jury Selection (1986).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)