Jury nullification

From Academic Kids

Jury nullification is the act of a jury judging the law itself, of which a defendant is accused of violating, and rendering a not-guilty verdict based upon its judgement of the law as invalid or unjust. The right of jury nullification comes from English common law, and is therefore preserved in those legal systems derived from it. These include most English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Nullification is generally not a clearly-defined right protected by legal statute. Rather, it is an inherent aspect of the jury system under common law, sometimes justified as a safeguard of last-resort against wrongful imprisonment and government tyranny. Nullification actually derives from a pair of separate common law precedents: the prohibition on punishing jury members for their verdict, and a similar prohibition on retrying defendants after a not-guilty verdict has been handed down.

Until the late 17th century, the right of jurors to override the judge's instructions in returning not-guilty verdicts was a subject of contention in England. In 1670, William Penn was arrested for illegally preaching a Quaker sermon. Despite the fact that the judge demanded a guilty verdict and that preaching the sermon may have been illegal, the jury in that case acquitted Penn and was subsequently imprisoned and fined as a result. The highest court in England released them and established a lasting precedent by ruling that jurors could not be punished for their decisions.

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Jury nullification in the United States

The case of John Peter Zenger

The power of jury nullification predates the US Constitution. In November of 1734, a printer named John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel against his Majesty's government. At that time, a law of the Colony of New York forbade any publication without prior government approval. Zenger, however, defied this censorship and published articles strongly critical of New York colonial rule.

When brought to trial in August of 1735, Zenger admitted publishing the offending articles, but argued that the truth of the facts stated justified their publication. The judge instructed the jury that truth is not justification for libel. Rather, truth makes the libel more vicious, for public unrest is more likely to follow true, rather than false claims of bad governance. And since the defendant had admitted to the "fact" of publication, only a question of "law" remained.

The judge said the "issue of law" was for the court to determine, and he instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty. It took only ten minutes for the jury to disregard the judge's instructions on the law and find Zenger not guilty.

Constitutional law

The use of the jury to act as a protection of last-resort was espoused by many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. For example, John Adams said of jurors: "It is not only his right but his duty...to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." As a result, the United States has a particularly strong legal tradition protecting the right of jury nullification. Though the right of a jury to nullify a verdict has been repeatedly affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 1895 decision of Sparf vs U.S. held that a trial judge has no responsibility to inform the jury of that right. This decision, often cited, has led to a common practice in which juries are instructed that they must find guilt or innocence according to the law.

Advocacy groups such as the Fully Informed Jury Association work to inform potential jurors of their rights, and lobby for changes in the law requiring that judges properly inform jurors of their rights.

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