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Jury Nullification

Modern juries perform two important functions in criminal trials. They are first the finders of fact, meaning that they can evaluate the evidence and credibility of witnesses. Potential jurors are then called upon to apply the law to those facts. The applicable law is given to them by the trial judge in the form of jury instructions. Jurors swear an oath to follow those instructions and fulfill their duty impartially. Jury nullification is what happens when juries disregard that oath because they do not agree with the law.

This article examines jury nullification, including how it is defined, its legality, examples, and where to find more information.

The Role of Juries in the American Legal System

The United States Constitution guarantees a trial by jury to all persons accused of a crime. The jury is to be comprised of citizens from all walks of life, and there are no special skills or training required. Typically, all that is needed to qualify for jury service is U.S. citizenship, age of majority, residence in the particular judicial district for a certain period of time (typically one year), proficiency in the English language, and a lack of disqualifying mental or physical conditions. Millions of Americans are called for jury duty every year.

Service on a jury is a hallmark of the American justice system and a cornerstone of American democracy. The importance of juries in the American legal system arises from the colonial-era distrust of English judges. The authors of the Constitution believed that the common man could more fairly apply the law than a judge appointed by the Crown.

Jury Nullification in Theory and Application

The concept of jury nullification is based on the theory that the average citizen chosen for a jury should be able to override the statutes passed by the legislature. Nullification is inherently undemocratic, even if it is morally justified in a particular case. Sometimes, nullification is a tool that juries can use to set aside a law they believe is immoral or wrongly applied to the accused.

For example, in the 1800s, Congress passed the stringent fugitive slave laws that compelled citizens of all states to assist law enforcement with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves. Known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law included large fines for anyone who aided a slave in an escape, even by simply giving the person food or shelter. Abolitionists used the jury system to voice their protest by refusing to convict in these cases and thereby “nullifying" the law on moral grounds. The law still existed on the books, but it was increasingly difficult to enforce.

In other examples, juries refused to enforce alcohol prohibition laws and drug laws that they disagreed with, even if they violated the letter of the law. Jurors have also refused to convict a defendant who appeared sympathetic or created an emotional conflict, despite the clear evidence of guilt. The 1996 movie "A Time to Kill" is in many ways a movie about jury nullification. When two white southerners rape a black girl, it is assumed that no jury will convict them — not because of a lack of evidence but because of nullification.

In other contexts, a jury might refuse to convict out of concern for the consequences of conviction or an unwillingness to see a minimum sentence imposed. In these examples, the jurors may be violating their oaths and abdicating their responsibilities. Critics argue that the jury is a weakness in the criminal justice system. Others argue that the human element shows the system is working as intended — that it is more likely to acquit the guilty than to convict the innocent.

Legality of Jury Nullification

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, juries have no right to ignore the law when rendering the jury's verdict. However, nullification still occurs in certain cases. With the secrecy of jury deliberations, it can be difficult to determine if a jury nullifies the law, especially in close cases.

There is a strong interest in seeing the law applied evenly. Some judges forbid any mention of jury nullification in the courtroom. Defense attorneys are not allowed to tell the jury that they can ignore the legal instructions of the judge.

Some advocacy groups have tried to change these rules, with little success. A 2016 push by New Hampshire lawmakers to require jury nullification instructions failed to garner sufficient support in the state's senate.

The practice of nullification stems from two interrelated circumstances. First, jurors are not punished for the verdict they render, no matter how unpopular it is. Second, unlike a wrongful conviction, an incorrect acquittal cannot be appealed because of the protection from double jeopardy afforded by the Constitution, which ensures that defendants given a not guilty verdict cannot be retried for the same crime in that court.

Jury Nullification: Related Resources

Questions About Jury Nullification? Get Professional Legal Help

If you are facing trial for a crime, you may have many questions. One of your first questions may be whether or not you're going to have a fair and impartial trial by a jury of your peers. An experienced, local criminal defense attorney can help you protect that right, while also representing you in court.

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