Did you know that, no matter the evidence, if a jury feels a law is unjust, it is permitted to “nullify” the law rather than finding someone guilty? Basically, jury nullification is a jury’s way of saying, “By the letter of the law, the defendant is guilty, but we also disagree with that law, so we vote to not punish the accused.” Ultimately, the verdict serves as an acquittal.
Haven’t heard of jury nullification? Don’t feel bad; you’re far from alone. If anything, your unfamiliarity is by design. Generally, defense lawyers are not allowed to even mention jury nullification as a possibility during a trial because judges prefer juries to follow the general protocols rather than delivering independent verdicts.
A few years ago, Julian Heicklen handed out pamphlets to passersby on jury nullification to people outside of a federal courthouse. While the former professor was merely attempting to educate people about how the jury system works, he was charged with jury tampering. The prosecution labeled Heicklen “a significant and important threat to our judicial system,” but the judge ultimately disagreed and dismissed the case. Nonetheless, the fact that this case went to court at all shows how those in the legal system are willing to intimidate those who vocalize this loophole.
Jury nullification is undoubtedly feared because of its ability to upset the system. A jury that considers drug laws to be outrageous can nullify. A jury that is aware of the mass inequality in incarceration rates and believes a defendant was targeted via racial profiling can nullify. A jury that believes a harmless defendant is a victim of the prison industrial complex rather than a perpetrator can nullify. This counter-verdict exists so that citizens can right the wrongs inherent in our supposed “justice” system.
It’s absurd that such an immense power remains a secret to jurors throughout the process. Essentially, it’s a crapshoot as to whether a juror has prior knowledge of the ability to nullify – an unfair fate given what’s at stake.
Whether or not you choose to exercise the option of jury nullification the next time you serve on a jury is up to your own discretion, but all jurors should at least be aware that this option is available to them. Spread the word.
“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”