YOU MAY HAVE missed this exchange during the closing arguments
of the O.J. Simpson trial.
You can bet that Frank Nugent of Oakland, a member of the Fully
Informed Jury Association, didn't.
Marcia Clark: "I've never seen counsel ask for jury
nullification in this way."
Judge Ito: "It was very artfully phrased."
For a fleeting moment, jury nullification, a little-known but
important point of law dating back to the Magna Carta of 1215,
received worldwide attention in the Simpson case.
For an instant, Nugent's pet issue was in the limelight.
Prosecutor Marcia Clark was complaining to Judge Lance Ito
about defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's tactics with the jury.
Here's a definition.
Jury nullification: the power of a jury to reject a judge's
instructions or not to apply a law to a defendant if it believes
the result would be injustice.
In other words, juries can ignore the law if they want to
acquit. That happened a lot before the Civil War when juries
refused to convict abolitionists who helped runaway slaves.
Juries cannot, however, ignore the law if they want to convict.
It's a funny thing about this issue.
Opponents of jury nullification - and they are many - cite no
legal precedent that says juries do not have this power. Instead,
opponents argue that juries should not be told they have this
power. They say chaos will break out if jurors ignore judges'
instructions and decide laws should not be obeyed in certain cases.
Some opponents go further. They say juries should be told they
do not have the power to ignore the law if they want to acquit.
They say jury nullification occurs too often. To advertise this
inherent power of juries would produce anarchy across the nation.
Nugent and the Fully Informed Jury Association are in the
business of advertising this power.
Nugent, a retired insurance executive, is the Missouri
coordinator for the association. The association has 3,000 members
nationwide and chapters in every state.
Nugent is backing a bill that would require judges to be frank
about juries' power to nullify the law.
"The bill would force judges to tell the truth to juries. We
already have the authority in the law," he said.
So far, the association has not found anyone in the Missouri or
Illinois legislatures to introduce its legislation. The bill has
passed one chamber in some legislatures, but as of yet, not both.
Although Missouri has no such legislation, Gov. Mel Carnahan
signed a proclamation observing Jury Rights Day on Sept. 5. To the
faithful of the Fully Informed Jury Association, Jury Rights Day is
synonymous with a celebration of jury nullification.
However, Chris Sifford, Carnahan's spokesman, said the governor
only signed the proclamation as an endorsement of the jury system,
not of jury nullification.
The proclamation states that under "English and American legal
doctrine it is the right and responsibility of the trial jury to
decide both on matters of law and fact" and that Missouri
"recognizes these rights as true and inalienable."
Roots In The Magna Carta
The jury association takes its legal precedents all the way
back to the Magna Carta in 1215, when King John was forced to
surrender his power to rule by decree. The association cites
statements by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Samuel
Chase and Thomas Jefferson.
The group also invokes freedom of the press. John Peter Zenger
was acquitted in 1735 when a jury nullified a British law against
criticizing the royal governor of New York.
According to the association, judges began overruling the power
of juries in 1850 because so many northern juries refused to
convict abolitionists charged with helping runaway slaves. In 1895,
the Supreme Court - in the case which is still the binding
precedent - ruled that judges did not have to inform jurors they
had the power to nullify the law. …