The United States Constitution guarantees a trial by jury to all persons accused of a crime. That jury is comprised of average citizens from all walks of life with no special training or skills to serve other than being a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old, residing in the judicial district for a set period of time (typically one year), being proficient in English, having no disqualifying mental or physical conditions, and not having a pending or previous felony conviction. In fact, over 32 million people are called for jury service every year, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Serving on a jury is a hallmark of our justice system and a cornerstone of democracy. But did you know that, unlike judges, juries historically have been able to ignore the law in order to achieve justice in individual cases that involve unjust rules or their unjust application? This is known as jury nullification. Below, you will find a discussion of jury nullification, including how it’s defined, its legality, examples, and where to find more information.
Jury Nullification Defined
Jury nullification might sound like a convoluted concept in an already confusing legal system, but the idea is actually quite simple. It happens when a jury returns a verdict of Not Guilty despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. Why would a jury do this? Don’t jurors swear an oath to uphold the law? Yes, but oftentimes it is a tool juries can use to set aside a law they believe is immoral or wrongly applied to the accused.
For example, in the 1800s the government passed 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. Northerners used the jury box to voice their protest by refusing to convict in these cases and thereby “nullifying” the law on moral grounds. More recently, we have seen juries nullify prohibition era laws and drug laws that they disagree with.
Legality of Jury Nullification
Jury nullification is legal according to the U.S. Supreme Court, but whether or not juries need to be instructed on this right is a different matter. The Supreme Court has ruled that while the power of jury nullification exists, state courts and prosecutors are not required to inform jurors of this power. Accordingly, judges around the country have routinely forbidden any mention of jury nullification in the courtroom. For example, a 2016 push by New Hampshire lawmakers to require a jury nullification instruction was quashed in the state Senate.
The right to disregard the law if you morally disagree with it also comes from the fact that jurors cannot be punished for the verdict they render, no matter how unpopular it is to the general public or the specific judge presiding over the case. Also, defendants found not guilty cannot be retried for the same crime. Hence, once a jury finds a defendant not guilty, there is no mechanism for a prosecutor to bring the case against the same defendant again.
Jury Nullification Additional Resources
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