I will be honest, until I read Paul Butler’s “In Defense of Jury Nullification”, I had never heard of jury nullification. I think what surprises me the most though, is the fact that I had never seen this topic come up in the many news articles I read per day. And it begs the question: are Americans aware of this power of the jury and overwhelmingly accepting of it or are they unaware of this power of the jury and therefore offer no criticisms of it? I might be a cynic, but I believe the latter to be true.
Why do I think many Americans would find fault in this doctrine? Because the doctrine states that the jury can find a defendant not guilty, even if they believe the defendant is guilty of the crime they are accused, for reasons such as believing the law to be unjust. Even if the law is unjust, most of Americans presumably could not stomach the fact that someone who breaks the law would be found not guilty. And if someone is found guilty in the court of public opinion but found not guilty in the real courts, we are outraged, such as the case for Orenthal J. Simpson or Casey Anthony. Whatever your opinion of these cases is, it is irrelevant. My point is both cases were decided by the public well before the verdict came down, but the verdict that came down was not what the public wanted, and folks were outraged. We fear crime, and we fear the idea of “guilty” persons walking among us. So in my opinion it can be reasonably assumed that most Americans would not like the doctrine of jury nullification.
I am not saying we should not be aware of the crimes committed in our neighborhoods, but our incredible fear of crime is misplaced. In my opinion, we should not fear those convicted in the court of public opinion walking free. We should fear the fact that 1 in 25 persons convicted and sentenced to death are later found to be innocent. We should fear the grossly underfunded public defense system. We should fear police officers planting evidence on suspects. We should fear the fact that children are tried as adults. We should fear all these things because as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative says: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
I think the jury should have the power to acquit if they believe the law to be unjust, or believe prosecutorial or police misconduct plagued the case. I believe they should have this power, even if relatively small, to make a difference in our criminal justice system. And I think in the end we would rather have some small influence on our criminal justice system than none. And while it is not unusual for me to disagree with public sentiment, I sincerely hope that if this becomes an issue, the people will see jury nullification for what it is: the ability of democratic citizens to check the criminal justice system, an ability we should hold onto.
Since I mentioned Bryan Stevenson, I wanted to share his TED talk on our criminal justice system. It is by far my favorite TED presentation and I hope you all enjoy it. Cheers for now.