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What is Jury Nullification?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 March 2014
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Jury nullification is the name given to the act of a jury in acquitting a defendant, in spite of the fact that they have actually violated the letter of the law to the satisfaction of the jury. As a result, the defendant is declared innocent, even though without an act of jury nullification they would have been found guilty. Generally, jury nullification is undertaken by a jury that disagrees with a law, as a way of demonstrating their objection to the law, and their choice not to punish the person who broke that law. Jury nullification is a powerful tool that citizens can use to make their views on the law clear, and over time it may have the effect of helping to shift the laws themselves.

Technically, cases are meant to be decided according to the actual wording of the law, or the letter of the law. A judge may often remind a jury that the question at hand is not whether or not something is bad, or wrong, but whether the defendant actually committed the crime being described. In fact, however, juries have a right, and some would argue a responsibility, to use their own judgment in deciding their verdict. It is, in fact, this introduction of human thought that is so central to the jury process. Jury nullification has often been responsible for many powerful rebuttals of unjust laws, but at the same time is open to abuse that could be seen as undermining fundamental rights.

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In fact, juries were originally conceived of in large part to ensure that the people making the ultimate verdict on a person’s innocence or guilt were not beholden to outside interests, including a strict interpretation of the law. It was thought that over time the law could drift away from its Constitutional origins, becoming too caught up in the bureaucratic intricacies to truly reflect its original intent. Jury nullification, therefore, can be seen as the original purpose of juries, as is exemplified in a statement to Thomas Paine by Thomas Jefferson, in which he noted, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, put it even more starkly, when he said, “The jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy.”

There are many famous examples of jury nullification in history, generally in cases where the law at hand was widely perceived as unjust or had a broad faction of dissent. For example, during Prohibition, many jurors exercised their right to jury nullification by finding those charged with bootlegging innocent, even if the facts showed they had committed the crime. Similarly, Abolitionist sympathizers would often find a defendant innocent in cases of harboring escaped slaves, even if the evidence showed they had harbored the escaped slaves.

There is a great deal of controversy around jury nullification, however, and many people voice concerns that it could be used to racist or bigoted ends. For example, in theory a racist jury could find a defendant innocent in a case in which they killed minority victim, even if the evidence showed they had committed the crime. There is, today, some question as to whether a judge can remove a juror for cause if they attempt to utilize jury nullification, and whether they can even punish those who fail to apply the law as written to a case.

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Discuss this Article

Moldova
Post 4

Cupcake15-I will answer that for you. It absolutely is and it is protected by the constitution.

The jurors have the right to interpret the law, but they should be as factual as possible. There was a case of jury nullification that went to the Supreme Court.

This was a court challenge to a case in 1895 in which the judge did not let the jury challenge him with regards to their meaning of the law.

The Supreme Court ruled in the defendant’s favor and now judges have to inform juries that they have a right to nullify.

I think for this reason it is important to have a jury as diverse as possible so that any potential bias could be neutralized. This among the jury nullification pros and cons.

cupcake15
Post 3

Icecream17-Is jury nullification legal? If it is it really can lead to some subjective verdicts.

icecream17
Post 2

Bhutan-A great example of race based jury nullification involves the racially based jury nullification of the OJ Simpon murder trial.

The jury was comprised of African-American women that offered a not guilty verdict for OJ Simson, an African American defendant. The evidence was overwhelming yet this jury chose an acquittal.

The case was retried in a civil court and he was found guilty. Some say that his recent case involving his theft of some memorabilia is viewed as receiving harsh treatment. He received the max sentence for this case.

It might be due to the fact that people could not get over the not guilty verdict in his murder trial and is thus being treated more harshly than normal.

His murder case was really the most recent example of race base jury nullification, in fact it would actually define jury nullification.

Bhutan
Post 1

A voir dire examination is when the defense and prosecuting attorneys question the potential jury pool in order to narrow down the actual jury for the upcoming trial.

Each side will ask questions in order to find a jury that sympathetic to their side. They may exclude people that may have a potential bias with some of the facts or situations of the case.

For example, if the defendant is accused of bank robbery, the lawyers for the defense may try to exclude anyone that has or previously has worked in a bank or financial institution.

Likewise if the case involves a wrongful termination suit, then the defense will try to get as many successful career minded individuals and will want to include successful business owners who are known for their self starting mentality.

These types of people will tend to view the case from the company point of view and will tend to be more sympathetic towards the defense.

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