Jury Nullification

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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A sanctioned doctrine of trial proceedings wherein members of a jury disregard either the evidence presented or the instructions of the judge in order to reach a verdict based upon their own consciences. It espouses the concept that jurors should be the judges of both law and fact.

The traditional approach in U.S. court systems is for jurors to be the "triers of fact," while the judge is considered the interpreter of law and the one who will instruct the jury on the applicable law. Jury nullification occurs when a jury substitutes its own interpretation of the law and/or disregards the law entirely in reaching a verdict. The most widely accepted understanding of jury nullification by the courts is one that acknowledges the power but not the right of a juror or jury to nullify the law. Jury nullification is most often, although rarely, exercised in criminal trials but technically is applicable to civil trials as well, where it is subject to civil procedural remedies such as the JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT.

In criminal cases, however, the FIFTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution makes final a jury trial that results in an acquittal, and it guarantees freedom from DOUBLE JEOPARDY. This gives juries an inherent power to follow their own consciences in reaching a verdict, notwithstanding jury instructions or charges to the contrary.

History and Development

Jury nullification is not new; in fact, proponents wanting to justify its contemporary application do so by referring to early U.S. history when American colonists struggled to fashion a legal system that would be applicable to them. Prior to U.S. independence, the ENGLISH LAW of seditious libel carried grave consequences for colonists who spoke out against British rule of the colonies. In 1735, defense counsel for JOHN PETER ZENGER, at Zenger's trial for seditious LIBEL, contended that:

[Juries] have the right beyond all dispute to determine both the law and the facts, and where they do not doubt of the law, they ought to do so. This of leaving it to the judgment of the Court whether the words are libelous or not in effect renders juries useless (to say no worse) in many cases.

The jury acquitted Zenger, and every subsequent colonial jurisdiction that confronted the issue of the jury's right to decide both the law and the facts also came to the conclusion that jurors could...

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