- 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.
- 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
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
"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
"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
- 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