What is Jury Nullification?
You won’t find jury nullification defined in your dictionary or described in your encyclopedia. You weren’t taught about it in school, and indeed it is even considered a crime to tell other people about it in some circumstances.
According to the Wikipedia entry:
Jury nullification is a constitutional doctrine which allows juries to acquit criminal defendants who are technically guilty, but who do not deserve punishment. It occurs in a trial when a jury reaches a verdict contrary to the judge’s instructions as to the law.
A jury verdict contrary to the letter of the law pertains only to the particular case before it. If a pattern of acquittals develops, however, in response to repeated attempts to prosecute a statutory offence, this can have the de facto effect of invalidating the statute. A pattern of jury nullification may indicate public opposition to an unwanted legislative enactment…
If you believe in a system of checks and balances to keep government power from growing out of control, then you support jury nullification!
Now, let’s look at some important cases in the history of jury nullification…
1.) Fugitive Slave Act Of 1850
Jury nullification was practiced in the 1850s to protest the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act had been passed to mollify the slave owners from the South, who were otherwise threatening to secede from the Union. Across the North, local juries acquitted men accused of violating the law. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was a key supporter of the law as expressed in his famous “Seventh of March” speech. He wanted high-profile convictions.
The jury nullifications ruined his presidential aspirations and his last-ditch efforts to find a compromise between North and South. Webster led the prosecution when defendants were accused of rescuing Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner; the juries convicted none of the men. Webster tried to enforce a law that was extremely unpopular in the North, and his Whig Party passed over him again when they chose a presidential nominee in 1852.
2.) The Camden 28
What do you do when a child’s on fire? We saw children on fire.
What, what do you do when a child’s on fire in a war that was a mistake?
What do you do? Like write a letter?
With these words from Father Michael Doyle, the award-winning documentary film by Anthony Giacchino entitled The Camden 28 begins to tell the extraordinary story of a group of peace activists working to end the Vietnam War. In the early hours of 22 August 1971, this group of 28 including students, blue collar workers, clergy, and others, most of them would put into motion their direct action against the war. Several of them broke into a draft board office in Camden, New Jersey, and set about their work of destroying and removing draft records while others monitored the situation and advised from outside the buidling. Their goal was to shut the office down. With just a few minutes left before they planned to leave, they were accosted by FBI agents who had lain in wait, watching them work without interfering until they were given the order to intervene.
63 days after the trial began and nearly two years after their direct action the fate of the Camden 28 would be settled by their jury. On 20 May 1973, concluding an historic trial, the jury who had listened and deliberated over the case for two months declared each and every one of the defendants Not Guilty on every count against them. This jury exercised its right of jury nullification to vacate more than 100 charges en masse in this single trial.
Subsequent to this abject defeat in court, the government dropped charges against the other defendants who had been severed from this trial. Supreme Court Justice William Brendan would refer to the Camden 28 as “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” Just months after the close of the trial, the U.S. would end its military involvement in Vietnam.
Source: Fully Informed Jury Association
3.) NH Jury Refuses to Convict Marijuana Grower
Jury nullification occurs when a jury concludes that a defendant is technically guilty, but fails to convict the defendant on the grounds that the law in question is unjust. While jury nullification is legal, judges frequently do not inform juries of this power, and may prohibit defense attorneys from doing so, according to the University of Missouri.
At Darrell’s trial, however, the jurors were fully informed of their nullification power, the Laconia Daily Sun reports. As per the recommendation of defense attorney Mark Sisti, Judges James O’Neill read aloud to the jury:
“Even if you find that the State has proven each and every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, you may still find the defendant not guilty if you have a conscientious feeling that a not guilty verdict would be a fair result in this case.”
Source: The Huffington Post
4.) Whistleblower Clive Ponting
In 1982, during the Falklands War, the British Royal Navy sank an Argentine Cruiser, the ARA General Belgrano. Three years later in 1985, civil servant (government employee) named Clive Ponting leaked two government documents concerning the sinking of the cruiser to a Member of Parliament (Tam Dalyell) and was subsequently charged with breaching section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. The prosecution in the case demanded that the jury convict Ponting as he had clearly contravened the Act by leaking official information about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War. His main defence, that it was in thepublic interest that this information be made available, was rejected on the grounds that “the public interest is what the government of the day says it is”, but the jury nevertheless acquitted him, much to the consternation of the Government. He had argued that he had acted out of “his duty to the interests of the state”; the judge had argued that civil servants owed their duty to the government.
5.) Alcohol Prohibition
In 1920, the US Constitution was amended to prohibit the sale of alcohol because a majority wished to impose their moral beliefs on the minority of citizens. The jury protected citizens from the tyranny of the majority. During Prohibition, juries nullified alcohol control laws about 60 percent of the time. The fact that most juries would not convict on alcohol control laws made the use of alcohol widespread throughout Prohibition. Jury resistance contributed to the adoption of the Twenty-first amendment repealing Prohibition. The jury reflecting made prohibition a toothless amendment.
Source: Niagra Falls Reporter
6.) The Trial of William Penn
The common-law tradition of freedom of religion and of assembly has its origins in the 1670 trial of William Penn, accused of preaching an illegal religion in Gracechurch Street, London. The jury refused to convict Penn in spite of clear evidence of guilt, because they were unwilling to brand a man a felon for worshiping God according to his own beliefs. When the court attempted to punish Penn’s jury for their act of nullification, a higher court reversed on the principle that it is only the jury, not the judge, which has the authority to decide whether a defendant is guilty.
7.) The Trial of John Peter Zenger
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called The NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL. This publication harshly pointed out the actions of the corrupt royal governor, WILLIAM S. COSBY. It accused the government of rigging elections and allowing the French enemy to explore New York harbor. It accused the governor of an assortment of crimes and basically labeled him an idiot. Although Zenger merely printed the articles, he was hauled into jail. The authors were anonymous, and Zenger would not name them.
In 1733, Zenger was accused of LIBEL, a legal term whose meaning is quite different for us today than it was for him. In his day it was libel when you published information that was opposed to the government. Truth or falsity were irrelevant. He never denied printing the pieces. The judge therefore felt that the verdict was never in question. Something very surprising happened, however.
When the trial began and Zenger’s new attorney began his defense, a stir fluttered through the courtroom. The most famous lawyer in the colonies,ANDREW HAMILTON of Philadelphia, stepped up to defend Zenger. Hamilton admitted that Zenger printed the charges and demanded the prosecution to prove them false. In a stirring appeal to the jury, Hamilton pleaded for his new client’s release. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” he claimed, “but the cause of liberty.” The judge ordered the jury to convict Zenger if they believed he printed the stories. But the jury returned in less than ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty.
Cheers filled the courtroom and soon spread throughout the countryside. Zenger and Hamilton were hailed as heroes. Another building block of liberty was in place.
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