Happy Weedsday, my friends! It’s been a crazy place to live on this globe lately! There are so many people that have been and continue to be locked in prisons and jails all across the country for cannabis-related charges as other parts of the world have stepped up and legalized it recreationally for their citizens. It seems hopeless, doesn’t it?
But there is hope in educating fellow peers though about a simple legal mechanism. It is called jury nullification!
Jury nullification is when a jury returns a verdict of “not guilty” even though that same jury may believe its that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. It’s basically down-voting the law in which they were charged with as no good. So jury, in effect, nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding. Pretty cool mechanism, huh?
I read up on several stories of jury nullification and so far it seems the most famous nullification case is the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who was charged with printing seditious libels of the governor of the Colony of New York, William Cosby. Even though Zenger undoubtedly printed the alleged libels, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.”
Do juries have the right to nullify? Juries clearly have the power to nullify; whether they also have the right to nullify is another question. In support of our right to nullify, early in our country’s history, judges often informed jurors of their nullification right. For example, our first Chief Justice, John Jay, told jurors: “You have a right to take upon yourselves to judge [both the facts and law].” In 1805, one of the charges against Justice Samuel Chase in his impeachment trial was that he wrongly prevented an attorney from arguing to a jury that the law should not be followed.
Judicial acceptance of nullification began to wane, however, in the late 1800s. In 1895, in United States v Sparf, the U. S. Supreme Court voted seven to two to uphold the conviction in a case in which the trial judge refused the defense attorney’s request to let the jury know of their nullification power.
Courts currently are reluctant to encourage jury
Recently, several courts have indicated that judges also have the right, when it is brought to their attention by other jurors, to remove (prior to a verdict, of course) from juries any juror who makes clear his or her intention to vote to nullify the law.
So, if jurors have the power to nullify, shouldn’t they be told so?
That’s a good question. Most people have no idea what jury nullification is or what it’s even used for. So, as it stands now, citizens and potential jurors must learn of their power to nullify from sources like televised legal dramas, novels, or articles like this one to educate them about this power. Some juries will understand that they do have the power to nullify, while other juries may be misled by judges into thinking that they must apply the law exactly as it is given. Many commentators regarding this issue have suggested that it is unfair to have a defendant’s fate depend upon whether he is lucky enough to have a jury that knows it has the power to nullify.
Judges have worried that informing jurors of their power to nullify will lead to jury anarchy, with jurors following their own sympathies. They suggest that informing of the power to nullify will increase the number of hung juries.
Some judges also have pointed out that jury nullification has had both positive and negative applications — the negative applications including some notorious cases in which all-white southern juries in the 1950s and 1960s refused to convict white supremacists for killing blacks or civil rights workers despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt.
Finally, some judges have argued that informing jurors of their power to nullify puts too much weight and responsibility on their shoulders and that is easier on jurors to simply decide facts, not the complex issues that may be presented in decisions about the morality or appropriateness of laws. I feel in this argument, how is the judge to know? He or she doesn’t know me or my comprehension. In my opinion, I believe that they think a person who is educated about and intends to exercise their power of jury nullification is a threat to them and their antiquated laws that need to be changed.
Jury nullification provides an important mechanism for feedback. Jurors can use this nullification to send messages to prosecutors about misplaced enforcement priorities or what they see as harassing or abusive prosecutions. In my opinion, it isn’t used often enough and could prevent many people for being jailed that should’t be, if only the general public was aware of this tool in our toolbox.