Jim Elliott

The state of Connecticut is thinking of exonerating people it convicted of witchcraft in the mid-1600s. They would be following the lead of noble Massachusetts which, a year ago, exonerated the last of those former human beings that they, too, hanged for witchcraft.

I am sure the wrongly accused will be grateful. Still dead, of course, but grateful.

In the witch trials of the 1600s, it didn’t take a lot of people to accuse someone of being a witch. In one case, a 12-year-old girl accused a local woman of having made her sick through witchcraft. She was joined by 10 or so other young ladies who became ill as well.

Proof of being a witch ran from having a birthmark to being able to float when thrown in a pond. The proof of innocence was sinking. Drowned, but innocent. Proof of the honesty of the accuser included witnesses, barking like dogs in the courtroom, and saying the “witch” made them bark.

A Montana state representative is interested in this witch hunt business, too, and is proposing a change to Montana’s Constitution to help it along. It differs from the witch hunts of the 1600s a little bit, but only a little.

It would enable a few citizens, rather than a judge, to have a grand jury seated to investigate a charge—real or imagined--listed in a petition signed by the citizens. The county attorney would then have to prosecute the case the grand jury conjures up. If the county attorney won’t prosecute the case, then the county attorney is guilty of a crime as well. (It does not say what happens to the county attorney if they lose a case, but I can imagine.)

I suspect that this proposed Amendment is to allow citizens to have local government investigated when there is no real and sufficient reason to cause the established authorities or a competent attorney to make a case, but neighbors could also use it to settle feuds.

Consider how easy it would be: Under this proposed Constitutional amendment, it would take the signatures of only one half of one percent of the registered voters of a county to force the seating of a Grand Jury. That’s an incredibly small number of people.

In Yellowstone County, our largest, it would require the signatures of 512 registered voters. In Petroleum County, our smallest, it would take 2, as in one, two. That is a pretty low bar. So, if someone has a grudge against someone else, the accuser ponies up a charge and gets a few other people to sign on to a petition calling for a grand jury to examine the case. It’s that simple.

This is for people who don’t have the believability to get a lawyer to file a case for them.

Consider this. We already have a legal system in Montana that allows one person to take another to court. So, the question is, what is broken here? And the answer is a heck of a lot less than will be broken by the ability of a few citizens to accuse someone of a crime by signing a petition against them.

The only reason there might be a need for this is that the citizens cannot otherwise convince a police officer, county attorney, or judge that a wrong has been committed. I grant you, our justice system is not perfect, but it is a system as opposed to vigilantism, which is emotion.

It is a dangerous idea. It enables a small group of people to ruin the life of someone they don’t like by accusing them of something that they wouldn’t be able to be accused of otherwise.

More importantly, it is symptomatic of what is wrong with the legislature in general, zealots with solutions looking for problems.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. 

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