Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jury Nullification: Frankly, We Need More of It

While an undergraduate, I took a course in American Journalism History and found that perhaps the most important freedom of the press case in the nation's history was decided by jury nullification. In 1735, the British Crown put John Peter Zenger on trial in New York City for "seditious libel."

Zenger's attorney, Andrew Hamilton, convinced jurors to ignore the law and decide on the merits of the case, establishing both the tradition of jury nullification and the primacy of truth in libel cases. Both still stand, although both continually are under fire.

Jury nullification got a very bad name during the Civil Rights Era when southern juries often would acquit white defendants of murdering blacks, or prosecutors might even avoid indicting people at all, even knowing that they were guilty of murder. (Or, when blacks were on trial, juries would ignore the evidence and convict out of racial prejudice, as what happened in the notorious Scottsboro Boys case.)

Many people also have said that the acquittal of O.J. Simpson was an example of jury nullification, but I believe that the prosecution did a miserable job in presenting the evidence and Simpson's defense managed to establish reasonable doubt. Given that Simpson now resides in a Nevada prison, where he is likely to remain for another decade at least, the not-guilty verdict against him has lost some of its edge.

Nonetheless, despite the bad name jury nullification has received, juror and potential jurors should know that they do have the legal power to declare a defendant "not guilty" even if they understand that he or she actually committed the act for which there is a charge. This article in the LA Times deals with jury nullification issues on marijuana possession, but it seems to me that jurors need to take a much harder view on other subjects.

The recent "honest services fraud" conviction against Kevin Ring in Washington, D.C., is a case in point. Afterward, jurors said that the trial was a "waste of public resources":
"I saw it as a waste of time and money, but the law is what it is," said Andre Ruffin outside the courtroom as several of his fellow jurors nodded in agreement.
Yet, Kevin Ring is likely to spend much of his life in prison, and yet (as I read through the arguments before trial), prosecutors had to twist the law in order to justify their charges. It would have been much more effective to have had jurors send a clear message to the Department of Justice that its abusive and wrongful prosecutions need to come to an end.

But, then, we are dealing with Washington, where jurors mostly are Democrat bureaucrats who are used to demanding full obedience to them (see the TSA as an example). Thus, injustice is what I would expect from these tax-feeders.

To find out more about the legal powers that juries have, the Fully Informed Jury Association has a website explaining the rights and duties of jurors. The organization's statement says it all:
The primary function of the independent juror is not, as many think, to dispense punishment to fellow citizens accused of breaking various laws, but rather to protect fellow citizens from tyrannical abuses of power by government.
[Update, Monday, December 27]: Benjamin Shaw sent me this link of a case that cries out for jury nullification. A man read his wife's email and found out she was having an affair with a previous husband. The Oakland County, Michigan, prosecutor is trying to have him thrown into prison for five years.

This case is an outrage, but it is very typical of prosecutors today, who constantly are on the hunt for new prosecutions. Furthermore, prosecutors today don't care about intent; they just want to throw as many people into prison as possible. [End Update]

7 comments:

Doc Ellis said...

Thank you for writing this

Doc Ellis 124

KC Sprayberry said...

IT's kind of funny to think politicians are corrupted by lobbyists. The federal prosecutor really doesn't have a grip on reality. Most politicians are so corrupt it's a wonder anything happens for the good of the people, including children - to quote the old political battle cry. We need to see more politicians tried in open court instead of the people their actions influence taking the rap.

Anonymous said...

Hard to believe!!! but as we know anything is possible... Thank's Mr, Anderson for the info..

Anonymous said...

I have a question, which I am asking respectfully:

Suppose the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial had done an excellent job and the jury had voted guilty. Would you have agreed with the verdict?

Anonymous said...

Nullification occurs all the time. The police use it, although unknowingly, when they tell us, "we just dont have the resources to run down every criminal." At least that is what I hear EVERY TIME I file a police report when thieves hit my home or car or bank account (twice now on the identity theft). Prosecutors use it constantly because their resources are strained. The executive branch uses it. Removing 100's of federal agents from the white collar division of the FBI during 911 times is one example. What seems to be off limits is the actual proper use of nullification, by the citizenry. No, we can't have lawful use of nullification. so there are is every constraint imaginable put up to shield the citizens from even knowing about nullification.

William L. Anderson said...

The 12:51 commenter makes a good point. However, I'm not sure how the prosecution could have done a better job with the evidence that they had.

Had the jury voted guilty with the evidence we know, I would have had problems with it. Nonetheless, I also believe that O.J. did not have clean hands with it, and very well might have had something to do with it. I don't know.

What I do know is that O.J. is spending time in the slammer, and he does seem to belong there. He was a boyhood hero of mine, but that was a long time ago.

Six said...

Excellent post! FAR too many prosecutors care less about justice and more about conviction rate and being able to show how 'tough on crime' they are.

Recently a close friend of mine was selected to be on a jury and not knowing anything about the case, I forwarded him information on Jury Nullification. We have seen a very over-eager prosecuter in this part of Washington. As the story unfolded it became apparent that nullification would not be needed (he was fully prepared to take a stand on nullification if the charges were non-violent, victumless crimes), the woman was being charged with attempted murder. Her crime? Her ex-husband who RAPED her minor-child daughter (his step-daughter-and is now in jail for third degree rape of a minor) was being investigated at the time of the supposed 'attempt'. Her 'attempt' at murder? Admitting to investigators (who were investigating her ex-husband on the charges against him) that she fantasized about how to kill him for doing what he did to daughter. She admitted she had gone to Wal-mart and looked at knives, fantasizing what it would be like to have him dead. In thier mind, and the prosecutors, that amounted to 'attempted murder' and so after charging him with rape of a minor, they also went forward with charges against her... charges that could have put her in prison for 20 years should she had been found guilty.

My friend was elected the jury foreman and helped to lead to an acuittal - verdict came in just over an hour of deliberation. My friend had harsh words for the prosecutor and detectives for wasting so much of everyones time and resources to try and prosecute a woman for merely admitting to fantasizing about the death of her childs rapist. Her real crime was thinking she could speak openly with police - honestly, what parent would not have fantasies about avenging the rape of thier child?

My advice, never talk to the police unless it is a matter of extreme emergency and you have no other options. I have taught my young son to always act with respect towards police, but to NEVER speak with them unless he has me or a lawyer present - no matter how persuasive they might be. If the police ever want to talk with him, look in our vehicle, our home or anything similar, I am raising him to say something along the lines of, "I want to cooperate as much as possible, I know how important this is, but because I know this must be very serious and important, I need to speak with my dad or an attorney first. Please get either my father or an attorney - I respect how serious of a matter this is, which is why I need my dad or an attorney here." You never know when you will come across an over-zealous police officer or for that matter prosecutor who is looking for ways to justify thier budgets or on a power-trip.