The 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides criminal defendants with the right to a public trial by an impartial jury. It is the civic duty of the jury to hear the facts of the case and make a determination as to the guilt of innocence of the accused defendant. The jury is presented with the evidence of the case and then presented with a set of jury instructions designed to provide guidance on how the jury must apply the pertinent law to the facts of the case. On occasion, the jury will believe that the defendant is in fact guilty in view of the evidence against him and in light of the jury instructions, and yet will return a “not guilty” verdict because the jurors believe that the law is wrong. When this happens, it is called “jury nullification” of a law.
Jury nullification is a means by which jurors can make a statement about the present state of the law. As time goes on and popular opinion changes, laws sometimes become outdated and no longer serve their intended purpose. Jury nullification gives the people a democratic voice with which they can express their opinion that a law is unfair and should no longer be upheld. This freedom is possible because criminal trial jurors face no repercussions for rendering verdicts that are at odds with the law, nor can the defendant be retried for the same crime if he is found “not guilty.”
Jury Nullification Is Part of America’s History
America’s juries have used their nullification power many times in the past to promote historic changes in US law. The first notable use of jury nullification occurred as long ago as 1735. The jury felt so strongly about American’s freedom of the press that during the Zenger trial the jury rendered a verdict of “not guilty” for Peter Zenger for the crime of publishing “seditious libel” about a colonial governor.
Another well-known historical examples was when juries in the North demonstrates that the Union was no longer in support of the Fugitive Slave laws in the mid-nineteenth century. The Fugitive Slave laws were enacted in 1850 as a last-ditch attempted to keep the South from seceding. Under the law, escaped slaves were extradited back to the state from which they fled. Northern juries were opposed to this practice and repeatedly nullified the laws.
Jury nullification has even been used to change theUnited States Constitution. When America came to disfavor the alcohol control laws that governed the prohibition era of the 1930’s, jury nullification was put to frequent and good use. Consequently, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established the prohibition of alcohol, was repealed as a result of the ratification of the 21st Amendment.
Will Jury Nullification be used to Voice Support for Present Day Reforms?
With all of the controversy surrounding the legalization of marijuana in some states, it is no surprise that there have already been a few instances where juries have nullifiedcriminal marijuana-related charges. The country is still very divided on this issue. But as history has taught, if Americans really want to see marijuana decriminalized, jury nullification is a tried and true means for communicating as much to lawmakers.
If you have questions about these issues or need help after being charged with a crime, contact the Waco defense attorneys at Giles & Giles today.