BIG RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Mecosta County judge will wait to decide if a West Michigan man will stand trial for handing out fliers in front of the courthouse.
Keith Wood was arrested in November and charged with misdemeanor jury tampering and felony obstruction of justice. Both sides agree on what happened, but differ on whether it was free speech or jury tampering.
Wood was handing out fliers about jury nullification. Jury nullification is the idea that jurors have the right to ignore a law they disagree with and vote according to their conscience. Supporters say it is legal and jurors should know their rights. Many prosecutors and judges disagree.
Attorney David Kallman, who represents Wood, says his client was approached by a deputy outside the Mecosta County courthouse in Big Rapids and told the judge wanted to speak with him. After being told he could be arrested if he didn’t see the judge, Kallman said, Wood entered the courthouse and was confronted in the hallway by a judge, Mecosta County Prosecutor Brian Thiede and an assistant prosecutor. After a short conversation, the judge ordered Wood be arrested.
Because the district court judge and magistrates are witnesses in the case, Circuit Court Judge Kimberly L. Booher is hearing the case in district court.
A preliminary exam was scheduled for Thursday to determine if the case would be bound over to circuit court. However, Wood’s attorney wants to call the prosecutor and assistant prosecutor as witnesses. The prosecutors argued against being forced to take the stand.
A large crowd gathered in the courtroom Thursday morning to support Wood. Some booed when the attorneys went behind closed doors before the hearing to speak with the judge. They also booed when the prosecutor argued against the idea of jury nullification itself.
“This just says ignore the law, ignore the facts, do what your conscience wants,” said Thiede. “And I’m thinking, oh my goodness, we could have the jury who think that jihad is righteous and if the San Bernardino shooters had not been killed, they say let’s acquit.”
That statement led to groans and boos from the audience and caused the judge to admonish the gallery to remain silent.
“Our client had the right to free speech to hand out this pamphlet with legal information,” Kallman argued. “He [Thiede] thinks it’s criminal. We don’t. But either way, it is protected. There is nothing in this juror pamphlet that that says anything about any case going on before the court. It’s general information put out by an organization; it was not even put out by my client.”
Thiede pointed out that Wood had been to an earlier pretrial hearing in the case against Andy Yoder, who was charged with filling in wetlands without a permit.
“The only time we ever have anybody show up to pass out pamphlets and the only jury to be picked that day is the Yoder jury,” argued Thiede.
Yoder ended up pleading guilty to two counts of filling a wetland without a permit. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 21.
Wood’s attorney says it doesn’t matter what was in the fliers, distributing them was free speech.
“You are entitled to in a public forum to hand out general information,” Kallman said. “This was not illegal information. It was not criminal information. He’s entitled to do it. Now I understand why the judge maybe didn’t like it or the prosecutor didn’t like it. But isn’t that part of free speech? Sometimes you don’t like what you hear. But you deal with it with more speech. You don’t deal with it by arresting people.”
Thursday, Judge Booher heard arguments on whether the prosecutors should be forced to testify and what documents they must turn over to the defense. She said she will consider the matter and issue a written ruling.
Wood’s attorney also plans to file a motion to dismiss the felony obstruction of justice charge. He argued prosecutors essentially charged his client twice for the same crime. The judge said she will consider that motion as well and, if needed, set a preliminary hearing date sometime after that.
In the meantime, Wood is free on bond.