Jurors Need to Know That They Can Say No is an extremely important OpEd by Paul Butler in the New York Times (and that makes it additionally important because of the reach).
This is something that we’ve talked about for years, here, but it’s really nice to see a well-written compelling piece on jury nullification in the Times.
I was struck by some of the comments. First, it was amazing how many people simply weren’t aware of the notion of jury nullification and that it was their right (and responsibility), despite what many judges and prosecutors would have you believe.
Second, I was somewhat shocked by the strong reaction against it by some (usually without much logic or understanding of the law).
Some were bizarre:
Cassandra: This is dangerous stuff. What if a juror in a death penalty case decides that the evidence is not legally sufficient to justify a death sentence, but chooses to override the instructions given and sentence the defendant to death “as a matter of conscience”. That leaves the juror feeling fine, and morally justified, but leaves the defendant improperly sentenced to die.
Peter Lynn As wonderful as it sounds, jury nullification is a very dangerous, bad idea. It allows twelve people to overthrow the law of the land. There is already a mechanism in place to change laws; campaign against them, get elected, convince a majority, pass a different law.
The idea that a small number of citizens should be able to modify the law arbitrarily is, on the face of it, silly. If I could find eleven people who agree with me that I should be able to take some of Mayor Bloomberg’s money (he would hardly miss a million or two), does that mean that I should be able to walk into his bank and walk out with his money? Not really.
Some didn’t understand the responsibility of citizenship:
Horst…The second reason I disagree is it places undue burden on the juror. It’s not a light task to determine the fate of another human being. I found it much easier when told that our only job was to determine whether the defendant was guilty of the laws as they are written, without regard to the punishment. If you introduce the idea that the juror is responsible for punishment, rather than the legal system, you’re putting an undue burden on a small group of people.
Of course, this was also the person who said, “… that was my only exposure to the law other than ‘Law and Order’.” Unfortunately, way too many Americans have been “trained” in law by that show.
There were also, fortunately, a ton of positive comments. I think that the notion of jury nullification, particularly in non-violent drug cases, is starting to spread as a reaction to the intransigence of the government in reforming this issue (and that’s exactly the purpose of jury nullification).
Here was one comment with a historical reference that I particularly enjoyed:
I couldn’t find the reference, but in school we were told that a very poor man whose family was starving stole a pig from a rich man. The jury said, ‘Not guilty if he returns the pig.’ The judge refused to accept that verdict, so the jury reconvened and returned with, ‘Not guilty and he can keep the pig.’