During a typical criminal trial, the judge will issue a set of jury instructions. The judge will tell the jury that they must set aside any personal beliefs and reach a verdict based solely on the facts presented at trial. But sometimes juries disregard these instructions and acquit defendants who clearly broke the law. They might do this because they think the law itself is unjust or they think it’s being wrongly applied to the defendant (i.e. the punishment doesn’t fit the crime).
When this occurs, juries have engaged in the practice of jury nullification. While judges and prosecutors make every effort to weed out “rogue jurors,” the history of the jury is replete with examples of courageous jury nullification.
For example, English jurors refused to convict William Penn when the government prosecuted him for practicing his Quaker religion. Colonial jurors acquitted John Peter Zenger, who was arrested for publishing remarks critical of the royal governor. Northern jurors refused to convict abolitionists accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Today, juries with misgivings about the War on Drugs have refused to convict medical marijuana defendants.
Why haven’t I heard of jury nullification before?
Despite this extensive history, modern judges mostly forbid any mention of jury nullification in the courtroom. This has happened in part because of an obscure Supreme Court decision. In 1895, the Court ruled in Sparf v. US that juries do have the power to nullify the law. But the ruling also stated that judges are not required to inform the jury of this. As a result, judges and prosecutors have exploited Sparf to forbid any mention of jury nullification from the courtroom.
Even though modern juries are kept in the dark about this right, jury nullification finds its moments in the spotlight. Here are links to the most important jury nullification how-to guides, thinkers, news, and various YouTube videos.
Current state of jury nullification activism
Rich Paul is Appealing his 81-year Prison Sentence for Selling Pot, VICE
Even when the jury must be informed about jury nullification through state law, judges still find ways to cement their power.
Nullify the War on Drugs, Mark Thornton
Consistent use of jury nullification in state drug cases might convince the Federal government to end the War on Drugs and return power back to the states.
Nullification: Jurors’ Secret Weapon Against Harsh Sentencing, The Nation
A great Progressive interpretation of the power behind jury nullification.
The Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA)
The predominant jury nullification advocacy and educational group.
Key jury nullification events of past few years
NH Jury Refuses to Convict Marijuana Grower
An important story about how New Hampshire’s jury nullification law helped acquit a man charged with growing marijuana.
Ed Rosenthal Jury Revolt
Jury members express regret upon hearing that the judge and prosecution disallowed key evidence in a medical marijuana trial.
Montana Marijuana Jury Revolt
A drug case was dropped after the judge and prosecution became concerned they would be unable to seat a jury willing to convict.
Jury Statute Not Violated by Protester, Judge Rules
Jury tampering charges dropped against jury nullification advocate Julian Heicklen. Heicklen stood outside a Manhattan courthouse handing out leaflets about jury nullification.
TIME Op-ed by Writers of ‘The Wire’
The government has used the War on Drugs to fill prisons with poor minorities. The writers of The Wire pledge not to sanction this abuse if ever called to serve on a jury.
Paul Butler’s Excellent NYT Op-ed
Jury nullification is a powerful tool which can save young minorities from becoming victims of the War on Drugs. Laws hindering jury nullification in effect strengthen the Drug War.
Other Cool Jury Nullification Stuff
Guide to Surviving as a Juror (by Clay Conrad)
An extensive account of the who, what, when, where, why, and how of jury nullification by a prominent jury nullification supporter.
The Camden 28 (documentary)
Documentary of The Camden 28, a group of antiwar Catholics who broke into a local draft board during the Vietnam War. The jury later acquitted every single member, a clear example of jury nullification’s success.
Comedian Doug Stanhope Says: Take Jury Duty
Victimless crime? Vote not guilty. It’s as simple as that.
Illustrated Guide to JN (by the same guy who wrote “It’s Just a Plant” and “Go The F*ck to Sleep”)
Jury nullification should be used in all criminal drug cases, where a defendant is on trial simply for the nonviolent use or possession of drugs.
Robert Anton Wilson discusses jury nullification
The whole purpose of the Magna Carta was for juries to make up their own mind as to what laws were to be applied to the people. If the jury is instructed to decide solely according to the facts, that instruction goes against the spirit of the Magna Carta.
Ron Paul on Jury Nullification
Ron Paul explains the history and importance of jury nullification with a panel of legal experts.
Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine, by Clay Conrad
The definitive scholarly work on jury nullification, reissued after the successful passage of New Hampshire’s jury nullification law.
Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, by Paul Butler
A wonderful defense of jury nullification from a former federal prosecutor who realized how jury nullification saved some black defendants he has prosecuting.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
While this is not a book about jury nullification, it is an excellent account of how the War on Drugs has ravaged the black community. Jury nullification can be used to fight this horrible system.
An Essay on The Trial by Jury, by Lysander Spooner
The clearest defense of the trial by jury and jury nullification. Spooner’s essay attacks the Fugitive Slave Act while asserting the right of the jury to nullify the law.