Modern criminal law juries perform two essential functions in criminal trials. They're the finders of fact, meaning they evaluate the evidence and credibility of witnesses. A trial judge gives the jurors the applicable law through jury instructions.
Jurors swear an oath to follow those instructions and fulfill their duty impartially. Jury nullification happens when juries disregard that oath and acquit a defendant because they disagree with the law.
This article examines jury nullification, including its definition, 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. Juries are often comprised of citizens from all walks of life. No special skills or training are required.
Millions of Americans are called for jury duty every year. To qualify for jury service in a criminal case, you must be:
- A U.S. citizen
- At least 18 years old
- A resident of the judicial district you are called to (typically at least one year)
- Proficient in the English language
- Without any disqualifying mental or physical conditions
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 person could more fairly apply the law than a judge appointed by the crown.
Jury Nullification in Theory and Application
Jury nullification occurs when jurors believe in the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but exercise the jury's power to acquit. They might feel that the defendant doesn't deserve to be punished under unjust laws.
Under this theory, the average citizen chosen for a jury can override the statutes passed by the legislature.
Sometimes, nullification is a tool that juries can use to set aside a law they believe is immoral or wrongly applied to a particular case. For example, in the 1800s, Congress passed stringent fugitive slave laws that compelled citizens of all states to assist law enforcement with apprehending suspected runaway slaves.
Known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law included large fines for anyone who aided an enslaved person 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, thereby "nullifying" the law on moral grounds. The law still existed on the books but was 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.
In other contexts, a jury might refuse to convict out of concern for the consequences of a conviction or an unwillingness to see a minimum sentence imposed. In these examples, the jurors violate their oaths and abdicate 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.
The Legality of Jury Nullification
According to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sparf v. U.S., written by Justice Harlan, juries have no right to ignore the law when rendering the jury's verdict. However, nullification still occurs in some instances because of the secrecy of jury deliberations. It is difficult to determine if a jury negates the law, especially in close cases.
Jurors are not punished for the verdict they render, no matter how unpopular it is. Unlike a wrongful conviction, an acquittal is not appealable because of the protection from double jeopardy afforded by the Constitution. This ensures that defendants given a not guilty verdict cannot be retried for the same crime in that court.
Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, even if a jury gets polled (asked individually to determine unanimity on a verdict), no juror can testify about statements or incidents that occurred during deliberation. The only exceptions involve limited inquiries into the validity of the verdict, indictment, or concerns about jury tampering. The limited exceptions include the following:
- Prejudicial information improperly brought to the jury's attention
- Outside influence improperly brought to bear on any juror
- A mistake in entering the verdict on the verdict form
All jurisdictions have a strong interest in seeing the law applied evenly. Some judges forbid any mention of jury nullification in the courtroom. Defense attorneys cannot tell the jury they can ignore the judge's legal instructions. Nevertheless, nullification can occur in other forms, such as a hung jury. This is where a jury cannot agree on a unanimous verdict.
A juror may decide to hold out, creating a hopeless "deadlock." The reason is not always based on their belief that the prosecution has not met their burden. Instead, a juror who may disagree with the punishment, e.g., in a death penalty case, may hold steadfast on voting not guilty. If a judge determines that further deliberation would be fruitless, meaning additional time will not help the jurors reach a unanimous decision, then a mistrial gets declared.
One of the most famous cases exhibiting jury nullification occurred in New York in 1735 when John Peter Zenger was charged with publishing seditious libel. Seditious libel is a printed defamatory statement intended to criticize public officials and undermine respect for the government. Chief Justice James De Lancey presided over the matter and provided the jury instructions on the applicable law. However, the jurors ignored it and returned a not guilty verdict.
While the legality of jury nullification remains dubious, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found a defendant was not entitled to a jury instruction on the doctrine of jury nullification. The appellate court agreed with the trial court in U.S. v. Krzyske, "There is no such thing as valid jury nullification."
Get Professional Legal Counsel To Prepare for Your Trial
You may have many questions if you are facing trial for a crime. One of your first questions may be whether you will have a fair and impartial trial by a jury of your peers. An experienced local criminal defense attorney can help you prepare and protect your civil rights while representing you in court.