California Juries Limited in Terms of Jury Nullification

Rumor has it that attorneys in some states hope for jury nullification at the end of a trial, knowing that it would be nearly impossible to get a “not guilty” verdict based on the facts of the case.  What is jury nullification, and what makes it so attractive in some cases? 

Defining Jury Nullification

Jury veto, juror pardon, or conscientious acquittal: sometimes, juries understand that a defendant may be guilty while opting to reject the evidence in the case because they believe the result of a guilty verdict would be unjust. Sometimes juries may be attempting to send a message about issues larger than the case at hand and believe they have the right to send that message through their verdict. In other situations, they may simply believe that the specifics of the particular case they are hearing warrant a not-guilty verdict in spite of a belief that the law was likely broken by the defendant. Here in California, our Supreme Court has taken that right away from juries, fearful of runaway juries who, in defending the conscience of the community at large, snub the laws on the books.

Historical Jury Nullifications

Jury nullification has been around for centuries! Fugitive Slave Laws were undermined when people who harbored escaped slaves were found to be “not guilty” by juries, despite stacks of evidence pointing to guilt. Alcohol prohibition laws were minimized when juries declined to convict guilty parties who’d violated laws related to alcohol control, a move in support of community values. More recently, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was found “not guilty” of murder three times when his involvement in “mercy killings” was relatively clear. In other situations, juries who believed drug laws were much too harsh have been unwilling to punish minor drug offenders in multiple states. When the enforcement of written laws is rejected, eventually laws around certain matters are simply unenforceable.

Is Jury Nullification Legal Elsewhere? 

While not necessarily encouraged, jury nullification is completely legal across the country. Sometimes prosecutors and/or judges will warn juries that jury nullification would be a relinquishment of their duty, but it is nonetheless a power that juries have in most of the United States. These verdicts cannot be overturned, and jurors cannot be punished for their verdict. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the most powerful legal minds in the world, publicly affirmed that she believes there is a place for jury nullification in our justice system. Whatever one’s thoughts on the issue, one study divulges that in 19% of cases, juries acquit when a judge would have leaned toward conviction, and roughly one-fifth of these acquittals were a result of jury nullification. 

How Do Jurors Know About this Option?

Since the late 1800’s courts have been reluctant to inform juries of jury nullification, let alone encourage it. In fact, in most cases, judges tell juries that it is, indeed, their duty to apply the law precisely as it is provided to them, even if they disagree with the law. In fact, some courts have determined that a juror who intends to nullify the law may be removed when reported by another juror. Though defense teams may wish for jury nullification, they are usually not allowed to propose it in their closing arguments. Unless a juror already knows about it, it likely will not happen. Nonetheless, it is something that dangles as an option in many courtrooms across the country.

Fighting for the Best Outcomes

The experienced, creative criminal defense attorneys at Boertje & Associates in San Diego always fight for the best possible outcomes for clients, although jury nullification is not an option in the state.  To discuss your situation, schedule a confidential consultation today.

Contact Information