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]