Jury Nullification – The power to do what is right. Part 1

Jefferson City criminal defense lawyerBefore every Missouri criminal trial begins, the judge asks the jury to stand and raise their right hand as the jurors take this oath:

Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will well and truly try the issues in this case and render a true verdict according to the law and the evidence, so help you God?”

After all the evidence in the case is heard, the court instructs the jury as to the law, telling them that they must decide the facts in the case. Something like this:

If you find and believe from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt:

First, that on or about March 18, 2008, on US Hwy 54, in the County of Cole, State of Missouri, the defendant operated a motor vehicle, and

Second, that he did so while in an intoxicated condition,

then you will find the defendant guilty of driving while intoxicated.

It looks very mechanical. Very simply, if the defendant was

1. intoxicated; and

2. driving; then he is automatically guilty.

But that is not how it works.

In fact, the jury has unquestioned power to find the defendant “not guilty.” Without having to justify why.

Now most of the time, jurors do follow the court’s instructions and render a verdict based on whether the state has proved the facts in the case beyond a reasonable doubt. But there are times when the jury clearly DOES NOT CARE that the state has proven it’s case.

If they think the law is unjust in a particular case, they exercise their power and vote “not guilty” even though the defendant undoubtedly did what he was accused of doing.

Twice-when I was a prosecutor–I learned this lesson firsthand.

The first time was a felony DWI trial. The defendant had been drunk (very drunk) driving and his lawyer was the only person who could dispute it with a straight face. But the jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict. Several jurors went out of their way after the trial to find me and tell me not to feel bad, that I did a good job, but there was no way they were going to find that nice boy guilty of a felony.

Another fellow was acquitted after I proved his guilt-beyond all possible doubt-that he illegally possessed a concealed weapon (a knife he kept under the driver’s seat of his car). I spoke with some jurors afterward and they just disagreed with the law. There was no way they were going to convict a man for doing what everyone has a right to do; i.e. keep a weapon in his car for self-defense.

The fascinating thing about this is that the jury got away with ignoring the court’s instructions. No one could stop them. No one could reverse their decision. No one could punish them afterward.

This power of “jury nullification” of the law is intriguing. I’ll get into it more in later posts.

–> Read Part 2

5 thoughts on “Jury Nullification – The power to do what is right. Part 1

  1. Anonymous says:

    When the legislature is passing laws under the pressure of wanting to appear ‘tough on crime’ it is up to the citizens of the community (the jury) to say, in effect: “what?! that is a crime.. ? no way” or “not Guilty”. It is the citizens way to tell police, prosecutors, judges, etc. that they disagree with the law. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to voice thier opinion by actually VOTING for or against their legislator…more on that – in another post.

  2. […] Juries don’t always do as they are told. Is that bad? […]

  3. Eric Blaise says:

    I find it fascinating how much power a jury has over a case. I mean, when you think about it, in most situations, a guilty, or not guilty verdict is up to the jury there isn’t much anyone else can do but argue their case and the jury decides after the fact. Fortunately it is up to the defense attorney to argue the case of the accused, and a prosecution attorney to argue against. The juror decide after hearing the testimonies of both parties.

  4. […] can read his jury nullification articles here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part […]

  5. I agree, it’s interesting how the jury can have a lot of power in a court case. Having a good lawyer can make a lot of difference to sway the opinion of the judge and the jury, but once the jury has come to a decision there’s little that can be done to change their mind. One of my cousins is going in for a court case tomorrow, so I hope that the jury will decide that the law is unjust to vote that he isn’t guilty of his crime.

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