ORLANDO – Looking more like a public entertainer than a political activist, Julian Heicklen seemed every bit like a man on stage before a rapturous audience.
“I was just a dumb kid,” he said, looking back on a childhood that had little to do with standing up for human rights. “I didn’t know any better. Then I happened to read ‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo. Then I read ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. I became a raving maniac for freedom.”
He was playing to the cameras – television cameras, to be exact, along with news reporters and photographers who had joined Heicklen in front of the Orange County Courthouse, where he was ready, and perhaps even eager, to get arrested.
“I’m immune from punishment,” he said. “They can’t destroy my future – I don’t have one. They can’t destroy my job — I don’t have one. They can’t take away my home — I don’t own one.”
“I have never met anyone like Julian in my entire life,” said Mark Schmidter, an Orlando Libertarian activist who helped bring Heicklen to this city from his home in Pennsylvania. “This has been an adventure.”
It was Schmidter whose actions in front of the Orange County Courthouse prompted a legal chain reaction that Heicklen decided to respond to. Schmidter got involved in a group called the Fully Informed Jury Association, or FIJA, which passes out written materials to prospective jurors, encouraging them to engage in jury nullification — or voting to acquit someone of a crime even when the evidence strongly indicates the person is guilty.
FIJA’s goal is to encourage jurors to vote not guilty if they disagree with or disapprove of the law that person is being charged with. That results, the organization based in Montana believes, will send a message to state and federal lawmakers that there are too many victimless crimes that people are being prosecuted for.
Schmidter endorsed the concept and spent four months handing out the flyers every Monday morning in front of the courthouse – until the chief justice, Belvin Perry Jr., issued an administrative order banning anyone from handing out written material to prospective jurors on the grounds that it represented a form of jury tampering.
The American Civil Liberties Union responded with a lawsuit challenging the judge’s order, which FIJA supported. Heicklen, though, offered to come by the courthouse and hand out the flyers – to engage in civil disobedience that leads to his arrest for violating Judge Perry’s administrative order.
Around noon today, Heicklen was at the courthouse, wearing a t-shirt that reads “More schools, less jails,” and carrying a sign that said “Jury Info.” Heicklen handed out few if any pamphlets, but was enjoying the attention and the platform to denounce a court system that he sees as more corrupt than the people behind charged in it.
“These aren’t courts of justice,” he said. “That’s a myth. These are courts of inquisition. The ones who should really be on trial are the lawyers and the judges. These are courts that are at least as bad as Stalin. The court system has completely collapsed.”
Schmidter said Heicklen’s actions – even something as simple as holding the “Jury Info” sign – should have landed him in jail.
“Technically he’s in violation right now because he has a sign in his hand that says ‘Jury Info,’ “ Schmidter said.
But Heicklen said he didn’t expect to get arrested – at least not with so many television cameras in front of him. He predicted the police wouldn’t want the publicity and wouldn’t take the bait.
“My guess is if you guys stay here with cameras, you won’t see a policeman,” he said. “The one thing the police don’t want is pictures. It’s evidence. The police all have the same bunch of lies to tell the judge.”
Eventually Heicklen wandered over to the walkway in-between the courthouse and the parking garage that jurors use, and began handing out the FIJA flyers to anyone who walked by. He was followed by the members of the news media who crowded around him – but not by an invasion of police officers looking for possible violations of the judge’s order.
“Find out what the judge won’t tell you,” Heicklen told people as he handed them the flyers. Then he praised the news media, saying they do something the courts refuse to do.
“You’re going to disseminate the information to the public,” he said.
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