Under normal circumstances, juries are expected to hear cases and determine the guilt or innocence of defendants. When one is confirmed guilty, the jury’s role is to convict for the crimes. However, there are instances when juries find one guilty but acquit them. Even though the jury’s power to acquit defendants despite judicial instructions and compelling evidence is not clear in law, academia, and the constitution, the practice has occurred several times. It is the jury’s right to decide to acquit defendants without fears of external pressures and coercion (Saltzburg, 2020). Therefore, jury nullification is the act of giving a not guilty verdict even when a jury is convinced that a defendant is guilty. According to the case facts, evidence, and the law, the jury cannot overturn a not guilty verdict and, at the same time, cannot punish the defendant. Therefore, the jury nullifies the law to acquit the defendant. Over the years, the practice has ignited a debate on whether juries have the competency to decide to acquit a convicted defendant and whether there are adequate laws supporting the practice (Saltzburg, 2020). Even though the juries enjoy the nullification power, their decision to acquit a defendant must be informed for several reasons that should be supported by the law (Saltzburg, 2020). However, judges also enjoy the independence of the judiciary, which requires them to work without fear and pressure from external influence. Jury nullification maybe both as a result of external influence, which makes its critics feel it repeals constitutional statutes. As a result of conflicting legal ideas concerning the practice, the paper discusses how the legal theory affects jury nullification.
Historical Background of Jury Nullification
Even though scholars have been striving to get the precise constitutional backing and root of jury nullification, its origin has been obscure. The power is confusing because it means that the jury, after determining the case, rejects it by acquitting the defendant instead of conviction according to case findings (Smith, 2016). However, some people believe that the act is a manifestation of the judiciary’s independence when it acquits despite the law and the evidence, which means that the constitution is silent about the act. Further, because of the lack of proper records on the practice, it can be concluded that the framer of the constitution did not capture it. Furthermore, because of the benefits of applying the practice in some cases, the framers could have assumed it. There was no immediate discussion on the topic after the making of the constitution. However, it should be noted that the framers of the constitution gave the juries the power to avoid laws that seemed constitutional, which formed the basis for the jury nullification.
The first case where jury nullification practice was exercised was the Bushel’s case, which was the trial of William Mean and William Penn, charged for preaching to the unlawful gathering. Even though the two were found guilty, they have acquitted; the jury argued they were taken to court on political motives (Smith, 2016). The jury nullification was also supported by the Court of Common Plea, which also added the jury power to control case facts.
During the colonial time, jury nullification was widespread in many court cases because the colonial used the power to nullify unpopular votes that hindered colonial activities. For instance, in the case between slaveholders and slaves were likely to lose their cases because of the jury nullification power’s misappropriated application (Smith, 2016). However, things changed when Justice Story argued that the law should be implemented as it is and should not be interpreted to fit individual interests. Story’s argument led to a judicial revolt against jury nullification practice. After the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, jury nullification became an issue of great concern when many defendants applied for the nullification of the law in their cases. Also, during the Vietnam War, defendants appealed for the nullification of the law.
Apart from the colonial cases of jury power to nullify, there were cases in US history where the power was limited. One of the cases is the US Supreme Court case involving the United States of America and Hansen and Sparf (Smith, 2016). The court ruling was that the jury was to apply the law as the court gives it and to apply the case facts. The other case is between the United States and Dougherty, where the United States, DC Circuit court of appeal debated on a case nullification request and upheld the ruling and turned down the right.
In Dougherty’s case, the argument against the turning-down nullification request was that juries should not be given explicit nullification guidelines because it would make their acts anarchic. Moreover, the power would burden the juries because they have a different interpretation of the law. According to Saltzburg (2020), judges should not be informed of their power to nullify, just as hidden in the constitution. Instead, they should be reminded of their independence and power to act without fear or coercion.
Even though juries are not directly reminded to practice their nullification powers, it is their right to practice what they wish. Saltzburg (2020) uses an analogy of a policy that drivers should drive at 60 kilometers per hour. Even though the policy is clear on the speed limit, there is an acceptable speed past the limitation that, in case of a court suit may make a jury to acquit an offender. However, judges are not told the extent to which drivers can surpass the limit. Still, they may use their analysis and nullification power to acquit drivers who exceed within a reasonable range. When the analogy is expressed in jury nullification’s general case, it is evident that judges are not given the express power to nullify. However, they enjoy the rights because reprisals against them failed in American history.
The other important aspect of the history of jury nullification is that it is not practiced in civil courts. The judiciary prevented the practice in civil court the constitutional year in 1789. Civil courts were not part of the Magna Carta, and they were as well not persistent with the colonial constitutions. Therefore, it did not have the jury nullification history. However, the civil court’s exclusion should be contested if jury nullification is meant to avoid applying laws that seem illegal. Furthermore, the juries have similar roles of stamping popular legitimacy concerning criminal case outcomes.
Civil courts’ history shows that the British colonialists removed unrestrained powers from the civil court’s juries. The colonists also removed some cases from the courts. Additionally, they reviewed some of the juries’ decisions, which made them less independent (Smith, 2016). Examples of the cases, the juries could not preside over included the equity and admiralty cases. They argued that they could not get a competent jury for the federal courts. However, that was not the case as the colonialists wanted unrestricted control over jury nullification power. They did not want the juries to nullify their unpopular trade laws and acquit smugglers and those punished by the British Naval officers when imposing civil liability. Knowing that the culprits would be acquitted, the British colonial government evaded the juries’ power by taking the culprits to admiralty courts (Smith, 2016). Even though the civil courts had a horrible history regarding jury nullification power, the practice did not stop. It continued after the 7th amendment of the constitution that limited the powers of the civil court juries.
Even though there is a common belief that groups are never biased in decision making and that it is individual decisions that maybe be prejudiced, there are individuals who work for the majority’s benefit. Civil juries should not be denied nullification powers. There should be a standard parameter applicable to all juries regarding their decisions. However, to protect the judiciary’s independence, the court should craft the parameters and implement them. For example, there should be procedural constraints that guide the conduct of judges. For instance, the juries should submit a written report on how the case facts and evidence were handled. The information should also show how the verdict was made. Judges are supposed to have written interrogatories and how they made their general verdict. The process helps in streamlining the reasoning and provides support for the judgment.
While analyzing the difference in roles played by civil and criminal trials, it is evident that the application of jury nullification is different. For instance, in a civil trial, the power has limitations, including writing reports containing the verdict’s reasoning (Fougère, 2018). Depending on the information, the judgment can be challenged. However, that is not the case in criminal trials where the juries have the absolute power to nullify. Further, civil trials are characterized by straight issues that involve right or wrong, while criminal trials include vague cases without precise determination. In such cases, it is easy for the jury to exercise the power of nullification.
A criminal trial verdict is based on a vague decision-making process. The juries have a role in using their conscience to make a verdict that reflects the law and the case facts (Fougère, 2018). As much as jury verdicts should be based on rules and evidence, there are periods in American history when some unpopular laws were made, and the minority groups were to follow. Most of the laws were illegal. For instance, America’s union government initiated the 13th and the 14th amendment of the constitution to provide freedom for all Americans after abolishing the slave trade. However, some states of America, primarily from the south, enjoyed cheap labor and continued to pass discriminatory laws against African Americans. For instance, African Americans did not have voting rights. Therefore, a jury with consciences knowing that the law was illegal would refuse to convict a defendant for committing such an offense. Like the colonial government, the American union government wanted to have absolute power over the jury nullification power by limiting particular cases to certain courts.