Julian Heicklen, Cantankerous Civil Liberties Advocate, Dies at 90
Julian P. Heicklen, a charismatic, cantankerous chemistry professor who dedicated his retirement years to a series of public protests in defense of civil liberties, culminating in his 2011 indictment for jury tampering, died on March 11 at his home in Teaneck, N.J. He was 90.
His daughter Judith Heicklen confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
Dr. Heicklen took on many issues, starting with civil rights in the 1960s, when he fought against housing discrimination in Los Angeles. But his highest-profile campaign was his last.
Starting in 2009, he regularly appeared in front of the federal courthouse on Pearl Street, in Lower Manhattan, demonstrating in favor of jury nullification, a controversial practice in which members of a jury who find a law unjust vote not guilty, regardless of the facts of a case, thereby nullifying the law.
Rain or shine, he arrived every Monday — the day when juries are typically chosen — holding a sign reading “Jury Info” and handing out yellow pamphlets that explained the meaning and history of jury nullification.
Though he typically stood alone, he was one of many around the country engaged in similar protests, motivated by concerns about what they saw as unjust laws and prosecutorial overreach and convinced that jurors willing to take the law into their own hands were the last barrier to tyranny.
Dr. Heicklen’s protests at the Pearl Street courthouse were drawing the attention of law enforcement by his second week. When officers moved to arrest him, which they did several times, he would fall to the ground, limp, forcing them to carry him away to St. Vincent’s Hospital where he would be given a psychiatric evaluation and let go. He signed his release forms Ayn Rand, after the philosopher and novelist, or John Galt, a character from her book “Atlas Shrugged.”
Finally, prosecutors had had enough, and arranged a sting operation. An F.B.I. agent, posing as a jury member, approached Dr. Heicklen in 2010 and asked about jury nullification. He got an earful, and a few days later, Dr. Heicklen was charged with jury tampering.
Prosecutors said that by targeting jurors, he was outside his constitutional rights, and that he posed a risk to the operations inside the courthouse.
“No legal system could long survive,” they said, “if it gave every individual the option of disregarding with impunity any law which by his personal standard was judged morally untenable.”
The case drew extensive coverage, giving Dr. Heicklen the sort of platform he had only dreamed of, and he played it for all he could. At his bail hearing, he hung his head and refused to speak, leading the judge to ask if he was sleeping.
“I’m exercising my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent,” he finally piped up. At his arraignment hearing, he laid into the judge and prosecutors for what he called their “tissue of lies.”
The case was short-lived: Judge Kimba M. Wood threw it out in April 2012, ruling that as long as Dr. Heicklen was not targeting individual jurors, he was merely exercising his First Amendment rights.
“I think it’s a major decision for the country,” Dr. Heicklen told The New York Times. He added: “This is better than having them throw me in jail.”
A decade later, jury nullification remains a fringe idea, but civil liberties advocates say that Dr. Heicklen’s story is nevertheless significant.
“The case cleared the way for people across the country to be able to engage in jury nullification advocacy without the threat of federal prosecution,” Chris Dunn, the legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “He stood out there every day fighting what he viewed as unjust prosecutions and unjust criminal laws. And that’s admirable, classic political protest.”
Julian Phillip Heicklen was born on March 9, 1932, in Rochester, N.Y. His father, Arnold, was a lawyer and stockbroker, and his mother, Eva (Muchnick) Heicklen, taught Hebrew.
He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell in 1954 and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1958. After a series of post-doctorate programs, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for a defense contractor.
He also became active in the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group.
Dr. Heicklen moved to Pennsylvania State University in 1967, where he became popular for his unorthodox instruction. To drum up interest in his courses, his daughter said, he would hand out campaign-style buttons and appear in class in a cape; he brought in Penn State gymnasts to demonstrate chemical reactions and cheerleaders to add a little spirit to the proceedings.
He remained active in civil liberties and civil rights, but it was only after he retired in 1992 that he became what one might ungenerously call a gadfly.
Along with regular, unsuccessful runs for public office on the Libertarian Party ticket, he made weekly appearances at the main gates at Penn State, where he would light a marijuana cigarette to protest drug laws. He was arrested several times.
He was indifferent, if not openly hostile, to the legal system. At one arraignment hearing, in 1998, he simply left the courthouse after a judge was 20 minutes late. He was rearrested at his home — coincidentally, at 4:20 p.m. — and brought before a different judge.
“You arrested the wrong man,” he said, according to The Daily Collegian, a student newspaper at Penn State. “I appeared, but the judge didn’t.”
Along with his daughter Judith, he is survived by his wife, Susan (Hook) Heicklen; two other daughters, Alice Heicklen and Deborah Heicklen; his sister, Lillian Gordon, and eight grandchildren.
Dr. Heicklen and his wife moved to Teaneck, a suburb of New York City, in 2006 to live with his daughter Judy, after which he brought his protest energies to Manhattan.
His jury-tampering episode was his last major run-in with the law. A few months after the case was thrown out, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to Israel and becoming an Israeli citizen. He returned to Teaneck in 2016.