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

Jury Nullification – The power to do what is right. Part 2

This thing they call “jury nullification” means that the jury can acquit a defendant if they think a strict application of the law–as given to them by the judge–would be unfair. It means that the jury is judging both the facts AND the law.

How exactly can a jury get away with giving a “not guilty” verdict when the facts clearly show that the defendant ACTUALLY DID what he was accused of doing?

The chief factor is the 5th amendment prohibition against double jeopardy. The defendant–once acquitted–cannot be tried a second time (this also means the state cannot appeal a “not guilty” verdict).

In addition to the fact that “not guilty” verdicts are binding and unappealable, the second factor is almost as important: no juror can be punished for rendering a “not guilty” verdict, even if they apparently failed to follow the court’s instructions. Unless they commit a crime like taking a bribe, they are untouchable.

When I was a prosecutor, the idea that a jury was free to acquit any defendant, was very distressing to me. Reasonably enough, prosecutors expect juries to render guilty verdicts when the prosecutor proves his case.

They can understand losing a case that turns out to be weaker than they expected. Things sometimes go badly at trial. But, on the other hand, nothing is more frustrating than seeing jurors acquit an obviously guilty person.

This is ironic because prosecutors typically exercise their own discretion in refusing to file 15% to 20% of all the cases the police send to them.

Just as prosecutors are annoyed by juries who disagree with them, the police are often rankled when the prosecutor won’t file every case submitted to them. Yet the police themselves will give a lawbreaker a second chance when they issue a warning or let a friend drive a troublemaker home, instead of arresting him.

It seems that nobody wants to convict a person who cannot or should not be prosecuted, but once THEY decide to punish the accused, THEY expect their decision to be the final word on the subject.

This raises the question: Who should have this power? Who should we trust with this sort of discretion? Who is more likely to bring the mind and values of the community to the decision-making process?

I’d welcome any comments on this. More in my next post.

–> Read part 3