Jury Nullification is the power rested in the hands of the jury to pronounce a guilty-accused person as "Not Guilty", if they are convinced that the prosecuted person does not deserve to be punished.
"Jury nullification occurs when guilt is established but the jury decides to acquit on its own sense of fairness, propriety, prejudice, or any other sentiment or concern." Randall Kennedy, Race, Crime, and the Law (1997)
Jury nullification is the power bestowed on a jury to announce an accused as 'Not Guilty' even if the jury knows that the person accused, is guilty in the eyes of law. The jury then overlooks the evidence found against the accused and sets him free or announces him as "Not Guilty", then the jury is said to have practiced the act of jury nullification. This may occur when a jury thinks that the accused does not really deserve a punishment.
Why Was it Formed?
The power of jury nullification was given to the jury to prevent unjust, prejudiced and vindictive verdicts that could arise from the bias of a single judge or a government panel. There could be a possibility that a judge or a government panel can be influenced with the judgments passed in the past and the way cases were dealt with. When an accused is claimed guilty on the basis of only law and not circumstances, the final verdict is certainly unjust.
A legal suit normally has to abide by the laws and the evidential facts of the case. It does not look at the motives of the accused and the conscience of the judge to influence a verdict. It is in such times when the role and the importance of jury nullification is observed.
How Does it Work?
1. If a person has been claimed 'not guilty' once by the Jury, the accused can then not be re-accused for the same crime again. Even the judge who has claimed the accused as guilty and does not agree with the jury's nullification, does not really have control on the decision made by the jury.
2. The Jurors have the last say when it comes to acquittals and they cannot be punished for returning a verdict.
3. It is the jury's own way of saying that they do not agree with the law.
Jury nullification has always been a controversial debate. People have called it 'racist', 'unfair' and illegal. Also not many people and not all jurors are aware of their right of jury nullification. In fact, many states prohibit its judges and attorneys from educating the jury about their right of nullification.
In the past, jury nullification has been fairly practiced in cases where people have been accused for trying to escape from slavery, by not announcing them as guilty and setting them free. This was the jury's own way of stating that, the laws built for slavery are unjust in itself. Other cases which involved Alcohol Prohibition, and the Right and freedom to Speech have also been nullified by the jury.
Jury Nullification in the Past
1. Case of John Peter Zenger John Peter Zenger was charged for printing seditious libels of William Cosby who was the governor of the colony of New York. Zenger in his defense said that whatever he was printing was the truth. He was guilty as per the constitutional laws and the evidence but the jury claimed him 'non-guilty'. This brought the freedom to express and speech become legal.
2. Fugitive Slave Act In the 1850s the northern juries practiced jury nullification for cases where individuals were accused of sheltering those slaves who ran away from their masters. This was against the Fugitive Slave Act which declared that all runaway slaves should be brought back to their masters. In this case the Fugitive law in itself was unjust but because of the power of jury nullification on the jury, fair justice was made.
This law has been used in the past and has been a reason for many amendments in the laws making them more just and considerate. Currently this law is not used efficiently (almost not used). Also the juries are not sure about their rights. Yet, there are accused who have been imprisoned for more than 25 years for cases like obtaining more Marijuana than legally allowed, only to cure themselves. Justice cannot be made by merely sticking to laws as there are a few situations in which a person has to break them just to attain a normal life.
Though it's not always the case that the final verdict announced by the jury has to be fair. In cases, where a prosecution is against an individual who comes from another race and the jury is biased against him, then an innocent person can be punished.
The power of jury nullification should be used very sensitively and in a way by which the confidence of the civilians on the jurisdiction of a nation increases. There may be times when the jury has to disregard the existing laws but that should only be done to save someone innocent or someone who does not deserve a punishment as harsh. Jury nullification can be an efficient tool in amending the current prejudiced and unfair laws and replacing them with laws that facilitate fair justice.
The doctrine of jury nullification is based on the constitutional principle that "it's better to let guilty people go free than to allow the innocent to be punished".