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JURY RIGHTS SUMMARY

Concept:

  • Jurors in criminal trials have the power to vote "not guilty" if enforcing the law would violate their conscience because juries cannot be punished for any verdict and jury acquittals cannot be overturned. An accused party's rights to trial by jury, where government is an opposing party, includes the right to inform the jurors of their power to judge the law as well as the evidence, and to vote on the verdict according to conscience.

History:

  • Both English and American juries were told about their power until the late 1890s. The following freedoms were protected by jury refusing to convict:

Freedom of religion, speech, and assembly - William Penn (London, 1670).

Freedom from witch hunts - 50 acquittals in a row stopped witch trials (Salem, 1693).

          Freedom of the press - John Peter Zenger (New York colony, 1735).

          Freedom from slavery - fugitive slave laws (America, 1850s).

Freedom to strike - anti-strike laws (late 1800s), which caused business interests to pressure judges to stop informing juries of their power.

Freedom to drink alcohol - Prohibition (1930s). Convictions became rare even without instruction.

  • Noah Webster, whose purpose in publishing a dictionary was to preserve the meaning of the language used in the Constitution, in his first Dictionary of the English Language (1828), included the following in his definition of "jury":

"Petty juries, consisting usually of twelve men, attend courts to try matters of fact in civil causes, and to decide both the law and the fact in criminal prosecutions."

  • The Texas Bill of Rights, using language from early federal legislation, already states that juries have the right to determine matters of law as well as fact. The last sentence of Article I, Sect 8 of the Texas Constitution reads:

"And in all indictments for libels, the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts, under the direction of the court, as in other cases." (emphasis added).

  • U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1895 case, Sparf and Hansen v. U. S., that juries indeed have veto power, but need not be told of it.

Issues:

  • Jury judgment of law can operate in only one direction - that of mercy. It cannot create new law, nor may jurors convict under nonexistent law, or escalate charges.
  • Jury refusal to apply a law does not abolish it. A jury may be merciful only in the case before it.
  • Jury refusal to apply a law does not set precedent, nor can a jury declare a law unconstitutional.
  • Jury nullification is an important way to inform governmental representatives about the changing conscience and values of the community, free from special interest pressure.
  • Fully informed jurors can better dispense justice, thereby preventing people from being imprisoned wrongly and reducing prison overcrowding.
 

Send mail to tomglass@juryduty.org  with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: November 27, 2003