JURY NULLIFICATION: Jurors Flex Their Muscles

By Conrad, Clay S. | USA TODAY, November 1999 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

JURY NULLIFICATION: Jurors Flex Their Muscles


Conrad, Clay S., USA TODAY


Of all constitutional rights, none of them have a longer or more auspicious pedigree than that of trial by jury, which is guaranteed no less than three times in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. First, the Founding Fathers guaranteed citizens accused of crime a trial by jury in Article III Section 2. That wasn't good enough, though. Fearing people might be tried away from their homes, friends, and families, they drafted the Sixth Amendment, guaranteeing that the trial would take place in the same district in which the crime was committed. Then, for good measure, they guaranteed civil litigants trial by jury in any case in which more than $20 was at stake. No other guarantee in the Constitution made the Founders be repetitive the way jury trial did --and for good reason.

Prior to the Revolution, the British transferred cases involving the Crown into the Maritime Courts, where there were no juries. They did this for an obvious reason--Colonial jurors were unwilling to convict their neighbors in cases where the laws were unjust. In 1735, John Peter Zenger was acquitted of printing criticisms of the royally appointed Governor of New York because the jury believed the criticisms were true. Although they had been instructed that the truth of a libel was no defense, the jurors believed it would be absolutely unjust to convict, and "just said no." Zenger went home a free man, and his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, was given an award for his representation. Freedom of speech, encompassed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, became part of the bedrock of American liberties.

Freedom of religion was recognized by juries 65 years earlier, when William Penn and William Mead were acquitted of tumultuous assembly for preaching the Quaker religion in Gracechurch Street, London. They were preaching in the street because they had been locked out of their meeting-house by the constables, the Quaker religion being proscribed by English law. A jury, after three days without food, water, or toilet facilities, acquitted Penn and Mead, thus establishing freedom of religion decades before it was officially recognized in the law.

As a reward for their service, Penn's jurors were themselves incarcerated for their verdict. On their appeal, it was ruled that, because "a man cannot see by another's eyes, nor hear by another's ears," no jurors could be prosecuted or punished for their verdict. This remains the law today. A juror may freely vote his or her conscience, without fear of reprisal by the judge, prosecutor, or police. Moreover, if the jury acquits, the verdict is absolutely final. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom from double jeopardy. Once a defendant is acquitted, the state cannot try again. The case is over.

Because jurors cannot be punished for their verdict, they have an unambiguous power to acquit guilty defendants. Occasionally, they do just that--a process called jury nullification. The power to nullify, protected as it is in the Constitution, exists to prevent oppression by the government, allowing private citizen jurors to veto governmental overreaching. However, the government does not like to be vetoed. Jury nullification has become a relentless source of tension between civil libertarians and government authorities.

History, as well as modern social science, shows that jurors tend to nullify either unpopular laws or overzealous applications of popular ones. The Alien and Sedition Acts and the Fugitive Slave Acts were frequently the target of nullifying jurors, as was Prohibition. In more recent years, Vietnam War protestors, motorcycle helmet law opponents, midwives, abortion protestors, right-to-die advocates, and users of marijuana for medicinal purposes have all benefited from juries that decided the law before them was just plain wrong. Juries also have nullified when they believed defendants faced sentences that were draconian under United States Sentencing Guidelines or "three strikes" laws.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

JURY NULLIFICATION: Jurors Flex Their Muscles
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?