Attorney Christopher Mark Neilson



“The Right to a Jury Trial”

It was a hot and humid morning in the park. The ground was still wet from the fresh dew. All of the flags were in place, moving ever so slightly in the stillness of the morning, as the officers and soldiers began to muster about. The cannon was methodically wheeled into place. The Fife & Drum Corp., wearing bright red colonial attire, was playing patriotic songs. The Choir was singing very pleasing songs of our Country.

The rider arrived on his beautiful stallion, crisply maneuvering through the crowd. Dressed in his white colonial shirt, black pants and boots, with his triangular dark hat, he jumped off of the mighty horse with his leather satchel, carefully handing the scroll contained within to the town greeters, who then lovingly carried this to the Town Crier, who then bellowed for all to come forward, to quiet their children, and to listen carefully to what was about to be read: it was, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE! The soldiers assembled into formation. They fired their black powder rifles skyward, and a huge plume of blue-grey smoke filled the heavy air. The date, July 4, 2002! The location, my old friend, Young Circle Park, in the great City of Hollywood, County of Broward, State of Florida, where I was born & raised, and have lived all of my life!

Many memories flowed through my mind that morning, memories of playing in the park as a child. Thoughts of taking long walks through Young Circle after supper, with my grandmother holding my little hand, came to mind. Thoughts of riding my stingray bicycle through the center of the park as a shortcut to and from Hollywood Beach! Of the open bible that was on the brass stand in the glass case in the pedestrian rotary in the very center of the park. I remembered of years later playing on the stage on rainy days with my tape recorder (the kind that you actually had to manually thread the tape reels onto). I sometimes even shot off fireworks there! Years later, after learning to ride a skateboard, I actually skateboarded down the steep seating area incline and under the front ledge of the park’s “Bandshell.” Growing up in Hollywood was great. We had Columbus Day festivals in the park, and later used to meet there as teenagers.

When my beautiful white “Pearlescent-Opalescent,” rolled & pleated, 1955′ Chevy 2 door was stolen that hot summer night from Hollywood’s Johnson Street Beach in 1970 (I had actually just stepped around the corner to get a chocolate ice), the rooftop surf racks were a dead giveaway to the Hollywood Police, and the chase was on. I just so happened to be inside a police car at the time, as I was instantaneously reporting the theft of my car to a police Sgt. I heard the crackling chatter of a pursuit over his police radio. After my inquiring of the radio transmissions, the officer denied it was my vehicle. I just knew, however, that it was my car they were chasing. Good luck I thought, since I built the car from scratch while working at the Hollywood City Hall Shell Gas Station as a teenager. It was really fast, with a Corvette 327 engine, and able to turn 12,000 RPM’s. Fast enough to blow the doors off most Hot Rods! Needless to say, from the beach to Young Circle there was no catching the car. The thief tried to get away, and flew into the Greyhound Bus Station on the North side of Young Circle, trying to slip through the drive on the West side of the building, only to crash into a Yellow Cab. It demolished the cab (but only ruined my right front fender, which I later replaced to make the car like new again!). When I arrived at the bus station, I noticed the police had a suspect in the “caged” back seat of a police cruiser, who I logically assumed was the thief! As it turned out, they had the wrong guy, and, they released him. There is really something to be said about innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, and in the darkness of the night, the perpetrator fled North, through the Hollywood Beach Golf Course, never to be caught! However, if the thief had been caught, he would have been entitled to a trial by jury. In 1972, I joined the Hollywood Police Department, where I served from 1972 to 1979. I remember having to arrest a highly intoxicated man in Young Circle, who had been causing trouble and refused to leave. It was raining, and on the long walk through the park back to the car, he began singing the old Gene Kelly song “Just Singing in the Rain.” It put a smile on all of our faces! If he had been facing more than six months in jail, he, too, would have been entitled to a trial by jury.

Well, it was a beautiful morning in the park, and listening to the Town Crier reading the Declaration of Independence again reminded me from whence we came. What indignities were imposed upon us by the King, who ignored our God given rights and basic humanity. Indignities such as depriving us of the benefits of jury trials in many cases, burning our towns, and destroying the lives of our people! The 56 founders wrote, of the then current King of England, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” How fortunate we are for the courage of those who came forward to correct those grave injustices.
Thank God for the

Declaration of Independence. Take it out some time. Read it. And remember, our present right to a jury trial flows from this incredible document. Accordingly, the right to a trial by Jury in criminal cases was incorporated into the United States Constitution, Amendment VI, which provides: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed; which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Likewise, the counterpart right to a Jury in civil cases was incorporated into the United States Constitution, Amendment VII, which provides: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

We should protect, and closely guard, our right to a Jury Trial. Special interests, and not so obvious causes, can slowly erode this precious right. For example, doesn’t the recent move to place caps on damages in certain cases take away such power from Juries? Wouldn’t this have the effect of eroding the constitutional power vested in the Jury to access damages? Think about it!

Next month, the second of a series of three articles about “Jury Trial’s” will discuss serving on a Criminal Felony Jury as a Police Officer! The third, and final article will complete this series the following month, and will discuss serving on a Criminal Felony Jury as an Attorney!

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