Jury Nullification

The term “jury nullification” refers to a jury’s verdict of “not guilty” despite believing the defendant is, in fact, guilty of the crime alleged. For example, jury nullification occurs when the jury “nullifies” the law related to the case, because they believe it is either corrupt or does not apply to the case presented. Once a jury declares a defendant “not guilty,” the court cannot question the verdict, and law enforcement cannot re-charge the defendant for the same crime. To explore this concept, consider the following Jury Nullification definition.

Definition of Jury Nullification

Noun

  1. The act of a jury returning a “not guilty” verdict, despite believing the defendant may, in fact, be guilty of the charge(s) against him.

Origin

1585-1595       Late Latin         (nūllificāre)

How Jury Nullification Works

What follows is an outline insofar as how jury nullification works.

A Trial Jury’s Job

A trial jury’s job is to evaluate the facts the lawyers present to them over the course of a trial, to determine the validity of what actually happened. They must then apply the law to the evidence they find, and determine an appropriate verdict. There are several factors that should not weigh in on the jury’s ultimate decision, including:

  • Whether they sympathize with the victim
  • Whether they disagree with the law
  • Their feelings about the crime in question
  • Their possible dislike for the defendant

Despite all of these things, the jury must follow the applicable law and make a decision, free from emotion, as to whether the defendant is innocent or guilty.

Jury Nullification

Jury nullification happens when the jury finds a “not guilty” verdict for a defendant because they disagree with the applicable law. A great example of jury nullification pertains to the Prohibition era. Juries who did not support the laws that regulated alcohol would set defendants who faced charges of smuggling free. Similarly, juries who did not agree with slavery laws freed defendants accused of assisting runaway slaves, or of being runaway slaves themselves.

Jury nullification can occur in civil trials as well as criminal. In a civil trial, rather than setting a defendant free, the jury decides whether the defendant is liable or not liable for the accused misconduct, according to the law.

Debate

Of course, there is much debate over the practice of jury nullification. Some believe that it is necessary to protect people from wrongful imprisonment, or becoming victims of tyranny. Others believe jury nullification is a violation of an individual’s right to a jury trial, if the jury is just going to make their own decision anyway without regard for the details of the trial. Some fear that jury nullification could also incite public violence.

However, while a judge cannot question the jury’s decision, he can override it. He can decide on a sentence himself, or he can act as a sort of check on a jury to ensure the jury did not decide on an otherwise malicious sentence.

Jurors’ Power to Nullify

Jurors’ power to nullify goes all the way back to when juries first formed. However, there are several issues surrounding jurors’ power to nullify, including:

  • Whether the judge should instruct or inform a jury of their power to nullify
  • Whether the judge should be able to remove a juror when s/he refuses to apply the law as directed
  • Whether the judge should be able to punish a juror for exercising his right to nullify
  • Whether lawyers should argue all the legal arguments in a case before the jury, or leave some out

Stealth Jurors and Shadow Defenses

In some U.S. cases, both lawyers and jurors have gone above and beyond to support jurors’ power to nullify. For instance, some juries will have a stealth juror among them. A stealth juror is a person who has a hidden agenda to promote jury nullification, and does whatever he can to ensure he becomes a member of the jury.

As for lawyers, some will use a shadow defense to enter information into the court’s record that would otherwise be inadmissible. A shadow defense is a defense that does not have legal merit, but that lawyers use to open up the possibility for jury nullification. Lawyers use shadow defenses in the hope that the evidence they provide will prompt a nullification.

Jury Nullification Example Involving Dr. Jack Kevorkian

One of the most famous examples of jury nullification involved Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian would provide terminally ill patients with lethal injections at their request to end their suffering. Kevorkian’s practices were the topic of much controversy. Some believed he was doing people a great service by putting an end to their suffering. Others, however, believed that what Kevorkian practiced was a form of murder.

Overview

Kevorkian assisted former racecar driver Thomas Youk with the latter’s death in September of 1998. The 52-year-old York had contacted Kevorkian because he was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and no longer wanted to go on living. Kevorkian taped himself interacting with Youk on two occasions to show the condition Youk was in. In the second videotape, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection to Youk, ending his life. Kevorkian was subsequently arrested and charged with Youk’s murder.

Jury Trial

During Kevorkian’s jury trial, the jury watched the two videotapes that Kevorkian had made. The television show 60 Minutes had also aired segments from the tapes. Kevorkian pleaded with the jury to engage in nullification and find him innocent. He defended his intention in assisting Youk as not a murder, but a “mercy killing.” The jury ultimately found Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder, and of delivering a controlled substance to Youk. They sentenced Kevorkian to 10 – 25 years for the murder charge, and 7 years for the controlled substance.

Appeal

Kevorkian appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals of Michigan. The Court noted that, while Kevorkian pleaded with the jury for nullification, he did not provide a legal justification for it in his appeal. Even during oral arguments, the Court stated that Kevorkian’s attorney made no mention of a defense in support of euthanasia.

The Court took a firm stance on this issue and did not, as Kevorkian had hoped, nullify the charges against him. Said the Court:

“Defendant, in what is now apparently something of an afterthought, asks us to conclude that euthanasia is legal and, therefore, to reverse his conviction on constitutional grounds. We refuse. Such a holding would be the first step down a very steep and very slippery slope. To paraphrase the United States Supreme Court in Washington v. Glucksberg, it would expand the right to privacy to include a right to commit euthanasia and thus place the issue outside the arenas of public debate and legislative action. Such a holding would also involve the judiciary in deciding questions that are simply beyond our capacity. Succinctly put, there is no principled basis for us to legalize euthanasia.”

Kevorkian’s Release and Death

Ultimately, the Court upheld Kevorkian’s conviction. Kevorkian served eight years of his sentence before his release in May of 2007 at the age of 79. Kevorkian passed away in June of 2011, at the age of 80, from a blood clot. To Kevorkian’s attorney, his death was peaceful and painless.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Evidence – Information presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts, including testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Tyranny – A cruel and unreasonable use of power by a government.
  • Verdict – A decision made by a judge or jury on the matters involved in a civil or criminal case.

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