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.
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.