We have seen that juries can render a “not guilty” verdict even where the evidence clearly shows the defendant did what he is accused of doing. Missouri cases have seldom spoken of this issue. Thirty years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court acknowledged jury nullification: “While courts recognize that jury nullification may occur from time to time, the practice is not encouraged.” State v. Hunter (Mo. banc 1979).
This, however, misses the point. No one suggests that juries should be encouraged to render verdicts inconsistent with the law. The question is whether they should be informed of this power and instructed in its use. Such independent juries have been the leading edge of political change.
Before the American civil war, it was the refusal of northern juries to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that moved the nation toward war and the abolition of slavery. Later, refusal of juries to enforce Prohibition led to the 21st Amendment. Whenever the government gets out of step with the people, the citizens have the power to fight back from the safety of the jury box.
Still, the courts are uncomfortable with the idea. Some will acknowledge that acquittal by jury nullification can be beneficial in certain situations, but they pretend to be terrified by the prospect of the jury going the other way. What if the jury doesn’t like the defendant and convicts him when he didn’t actually break the law? There are a couple reasons why this would not be a problem in actual practice:
- The courts would only instruct the jury about their right to judge the law (as well as facts) if the defendant requested that instruction. That way it would not be used by the state to falsely convict a defendant; and
- Unlike an acquittal (which can neither be reversed, nor the case re-tried) an illegal conviction could be set aside by the trial judge, and if not by the judge, then by the court of appeals.
With such protections in place, jury nullification is not the double-edged sword as some would suggest. It could only be used to acquit when a jury believed that the law–as given by the court–would cause an unjust, unfair result.
Another problem with the current system is that it sometimes creates an intolerable dilemma for jurors who must decide between following orders and following their conscience. Some argue that a juror—in taking his oath—commits perjury when he later delivers a “not guilty” verdict in spite of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is untrue for two reasons:
- First of all, the jurors’ oath says nothing about following the court’s instructions. The oath states that the juror will “truly try the issues in this case and render a true verdict according to the law and the evidence.” The juror would probably believe this to be the equivalent of promising: “I’ll do the best I can.”
- Second, even if the oath clearly demanded that the jurors follow the court’s instructions to the letter, any reasonable juror would assume that the law (as given by the court) will be fair, and would be applied in a fair way.
No juror imagines that his government would put him in a position where his oath cannot be fulfilled in good conscience. If the juror intended to follow the law at the time he took his oath—and later discovered that he could not—there can be no perjury.
The idea of an independent jury goes back before the Magna Carta. When government crosses the line, it is a great thing that twelve fellow citizens can step in and tell the state it has gone too far. If it happens just once, it saves just one person. If it happens over and over, even bigger things happen.
For more information on the importance of informed, independent juries: