Jurors in a criminal trial have the responsibility of deciding whether an accused individual, or defendant, is guilty or not guilty of a charged crime. They must examine the evidence presented at trial to determine whether the law has been broken. The court gives instructions to the jurors that inform them of the law that must be applied in the case.
Sometimes jurors may disagree with a particular law. Even if the evidence clearly shows that the defendant broke the law, they may find him not guilty of the charged crime. This is called jury nullification. The jury nullifies the law by ignoring it and letting the defendant go free.
Why Would the Jury Ignore the Law?
Jury nullification has a long history in the US. Jurors in the past have ignored unpopular laws created and enforced by the government. For example, many juries ignored alcohol control laws during the 1930s Prohibition era when the sale and transportation of alcohol was illegal.
Many people view the jury nullification power as a means to keep the government in check and to prevent any injustice from unfair laws. It's a safeguard of last resort to protect people from a government that attempts to wrongfully imprison them.
Does the Jury have the Power to Ignore the Law?
Juries have always had the power to ignore the law. Most courts don't investigate the reasons why a jury found a defendant not guilty. They would have no idea that a jury ignored the law instead of determining that the evidence was insufficient.
There are two other reasons why a jury has the power to nullify the law:
- Defendants that are found not guilty can't be retried for the same crime
- Jurors can't be punished for their verdict
Once a defendant is found not guilty, even by a jury ignoring the law, the government can't retry him. Also, the jurors can't be punished even if they ignored the law at trial. Therefore, the jurors don't have to worry about nullifying the law since they and the defendant can't be punished.
Does the Jury have the Right to Ignore the Law?
Although the power to ignore the law has been a traditional right of the jury for most of US history, most modern courts don't approve of the right and have attempted to prevent jury nullification. In most courts, the defendant doesn't have the right to instruct the jury about the nullification power. Juries for the most part are instructed that they must apply the law to the case, whether they agree with it or not. Since jurors can't be instructed of jury nullification, they usually have no idea that it's an option.
Some courts have taken their dislike of jury nullification a step further and removed jurors from the jury that indicated they didn't agree with the law and were going to ignore it. This usually happens when jurors complain to the court that a juror has expressed his disagreement with a law. However, many courts don't approve of investigating the jurors' views if there's just an allegation of nullification. Most courts attempt to have the jury deliberations remain as secret as possible.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Ignoring the Law?
People in favor of jury nullification believe that the jury should be told of this right to stop the government from enforcing unconstitutional laws. They also believe that some automatic punishments for certain crimes are too harsh, and this nullification right would help prevent injustice.
People against jury nullification believe that informing the jurors of this power will cause them to completely forget about the law and to decide the defendant's guilt based on feelings. They believe that the nullification power would allow too many dangerous criminals to go free without any consequences. According to them, the jury should just decide the facts of the case and not worry about the more complex issue of what laws are just or unjust.
Questions for Your Attorney
- May I ignore a criminal law during jury deliberations if it's against my religious beliefs? What if I believe it's unconstitutional?
- Should I tell the court if I hear one juror say that he disagrees with a criminal law and is going to ignore it? Does it matter if the verdict has already been returned to the court?
- If I am charged with a crime, can I have my attorney mention during closing arguments that the jury can ignore the law and find me not guilty?