The opposing party claims that judges “may become unsympathetic with the defendant due to the amount of trials they rule on” (The Positives of Jury Nullification, p. 3). This is in fact one of the reasons why juries provide a useful service, yet it is not reason enough for a jury to nullify a law. To nullify a law it is essential that you have a thorough knowledge of the laws background and makeup. A jury neither sees the amount of cases needed to make this judgment nor has the expertise to do so.
Indeed, “To expect them to make a reasoned decision on the wisdom of the law itself, with virtually none of the information that normally would be required in making such a decision, calls for more wisdom from most juries than fairly can be expected” (Leipold, 1997, p. 34). As the opposing party has pointed out jury nullification has changed over the centuries. Once meant the be “the last defense against the tyranny of the government” juries are now picked on terms of who will be the harshest or the most sympathetic to the defendant (The Positives of Jury Nullification, p.4).
Jury nullification has been put into practice in cases varying from civil disobedience where jurors were in agreement with actions taken, to reasons of personal dislike or like for the defendant. Some of the most debated of these are racially motivated jury nullifications. Whether it is the O. J. Simpson trial or the Rodney King trial there have been people who claim that jury decisions were based on racial prejudice.
In fact, Paul Butler (1995) in his call for black jury nullification went so far as to claim that “The decision as to what kind of conduct by African-Americans ought to be punished is better made by African-Americans themselves, based on the costs and benefits to their community, than by the traditional criminal justice process, which is controlled by white lawmakers and white law enforcers” (p. 677). The negative outlook on juries by many is the result of this kind of thinking and has lead to considerable grumbling on the nature of guilty or innocent within the American justice system.
One jury detractor claims that, “Today, trials are about politics and about power; the only thing that matters is who is on the jury” (Grenier, 1994, p. 35). Stephen Adler, legal editor of the Wall Street Journal claims that during an investigation into jury activities while he encountered sincere, serious jurorers, many were “missing key points, focusing on irrelevant issues, [and] failing to see through the cheapest appeals to sympathy or hate and generally botching the job" (Grenier, 1994, p. 35). And the greatest problem is that we don’t see all this.
We simply hear the verdict. It is here we should re-examine the opposing party’s claim that, “Everyone is afraid of the power that jurors have, because the jury has no one to answer to. Since jurors can’t be punished for their decisions, they have the ultimate power in law” (The Positives of Jury Nullification, p. 6). A society who puts this kind of power in the hands of citizens who know little or nothing of the process of law should be afraid. Where is the accountability, the transparency of law making that the founding fathers called for?
As to the claim that “without jury nullification, anyone is subject to any type of punishment beyond a reasonable doubt” the process for changing laws is clearly upheld by the articles of the constitution and is infinitely more democratic than the decision of a mere twelve people in closed quarters. They also claim that jury nullification is only used in extreme sentences, or when something obviously needs to be changed (p. 7), yet within their discourse they have given a perfect example of how racial hatred won over a jury, in the case of Mississippi v. J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant” (p. 4).
We must also ponder what would be the result of informing each and every jury of their right to jury nullification. It’s use would go on the rise. To claim that most people selected for a jury trial “can provide a neutral point of view” is far-fetched. There are numerous cases to prove that point. This is not just a simple case of “liberty versus restrictions” and to play it out in that light is to simplify a justice system that deserves a far greater attention to detail.
Juries, while they serve the purpose set out for them in the constitution, by their very secretive, uninformed nature are not cut out to decide on law making. The call to nullify at times may play with our deeper emotions but it is not reason enough to completely reverse a decision made by a that takes a far greater majority into consideration. On a final note please take into consideration the aggressive campaign being waged by the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA).
Members of this group have for some years now been attempting to sway juries by informing them of their power to veto laws and to make verdicts that fall far from facts. It is FIJA’s aim that political power “be "returned to the people" by making juries the chief determinant of public policy” (Haynie, 1997, p. 343). In the Turney v. Alaska case, where the defendant was accused of holding an illegal firearm, a FIJA member was prosecuted for lobbying and changing the juror’s vote (Haynie, 1997, p. 343). One juror stated, “I know my rights.
I called 1-800-tel-jury” before he changed his vote to not guilty (Haynie, 1997, p. 343). This same juror claimed that FIJA had educated him that as a jury member he did not have to “follow law” (Haynie, 1997, p. 348). The opposing side asks questions if jurors “are not allowed to take into account how they view/feel about the situation, then why are jurors even being used in today’s court trials? ” There is no argument as to their necessity in American courts. Jurors provide an important element to the American justice system, the possibility of being judged by your peers.
Yet, the judging of peers and law making are notably different areas. What is reasonable under our system of laws is that those making the laws be accountable. Juries provide an elemental service to the upholding of American law by assessing the nature of a crime and passing down a verdict, yet they should not cross over that boundary into law making. It is essential that jurors respect the rule of law established in the United States and follow that law. We have forums aplenty for changing laws within the United States government and it is here where laws should be questioned and changed, not in a court room.
Please consider this last statement, it is one that sums up the argument stated here: by giving juries the right to negate laws, you are giving them the power to make laws, making them a great degree less democratic.
References Butler, P. (1995). Racially Based Jury Nullification: Black Power in the Criminal Justice System. Yale Law Journal, 105 (3), 677-725. Grenier, R. (1994). Trial by Jury Is Scourge of U. S. Courts. Insight on the News, 10 (50), 35.