What Is a Jury Nullification?

Leaving your fate in the hands of a jury is daunting. They have the power to change your life with their verdict. Sometimes, though, the jury acts with a mind of its own despite the jury instructions they’ve been given. One way they might do this is through jury nullification.

At the Law Office of Case J. Darwin, we believe in being transparent with our clients. That includes advising you about how we can protect your rights and freedom. It also includes helping our clients understand the various results that could come from a jury trial that might impact their case.

This blog explains how jury nullification works.

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Image via Tingey Injury Law Firm, used with Unsplash License

Jury Nullification Explained

Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “not guilty” despite knowing that the defendant has broken the letter of the law. This decision is not because the jurors are confused or made a mistake but rather because they might feel the law itself is unjust or poorly applied to the case.

It’s like the jury is saying, “Yes, this person did what they’re accused of, but we don’t think it’s right to punish them under these laws.” This can occur in cases where the jurors believe that the consequences of a guilty verdict would be too harsh or the law itself seems outdated or in need of revision. In essence, jury nullification allows jurors to use their sense of justice and morality to guide their verdict, acting as a final check against laws they consider unfair.

Historical Examples of Jury Nullification

Throughout history, juries have used their power of nullification in several notable instances to make bold statements about the laws of their times. Significant examples of jury nullification occurred during the period of the Fugitive Slave Laws in the United States. These laws dictated that anyone who aided escaped slaves was required to pay large fines. Many jurors, opposing the moral and ethical implications of these laws, chose to acquit defendants accused of aiding these escapees despite clear evidence against them.

Another period when jury nullifications were more common was during the Prohibition era in the early 20th century when the United States banned the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol. Many citizens viewed these laws as an overreach of government power, leading to widespread disdain. As a result, juries frequently acquitted individuals charged with violating Prohibition laws, reflecting the public sentiment that the laws were unjust. These examples show how jury nullification has served as a powerful tool for the public to voice their opposition to laws they believe are unfair or oppressive.

Jury Nullification vs. a Hung Jury

The two most common outcomes in a criminal trial are a guilty verdict or not guilty verdict. However, jury nullification and a hung jury are two other outcomes that can occur in rare circumstances.

Jury nullification occurs when all jurors agree to acquit the defendant, despite strong evidence of guilt, because they believe the law is unjust or wrongly applied. This leads to the defendant being fully acquitted, and they cannot be tried again for the same offense.

On the other hand, a hung jury happens when the jurors cannot agree on a verdict. This deadlock means that the trial does not have a conclusive outcome. As a result, the defendant is not acquitted but also not convicted. The judge will declare a mistrial, and the prosecution may try the case again with a new jury, leaving the defendant’s legal situation unresolved until a new trial. On the other hand, the prosecution may drop the case if they believe they won’t get a conclusive verdict from a new jury.

Is Jury Nullification Legal in Texas?

Texas law does not strictly prohibit juries from nullifying a criminal case. On the other hand, there’s no law explicitly giving juries this power, either. That doesn’t mean juries can’t nullify a criminal case if they choose, but it doesn’t happen often.

The biggest hurdle to using the jury nullification defense is that defense attorneys cannot explicitly bring it up in court without risking legal sanctions. In other words, a defense lawyer can’t say to the jury, “You can return a not guilty verdict even if you think the evidence shows my client broke the law.”

The reason for this rule is that criminal juries are supposed to decide the facts of a case, not make law. In most cases, the jury’s application of the law to the facts of the case provides the result intended by the laws of the state.

Situations Where the Jury Nullification May Apply

If the jury knows about jury nullification, they might use it in certain cases where the application of the law might seem harsh or unjust. Here are a few scenarios where jury nullification may come into play:

  • Laws Against Specific Substances: In cases involving the criminalization of substances like marijuana, jurors might choose nullification even when the prosecution has compelling evidence to support their case.
  • Self-Defense Cases: When individuals are prosecuted for defending themselves or others, especially if the threat they faced was significant and real, jurors might feel that convicting the defendant would be unjust.
  • Assisted Suicide: If someone was charged with assisting an ailing loved one to end their own life, which is illegal in Texas, a jury could determine that the accused should not be punished for helping someone avoid a painful death.
  • Technical Violations: Jurors might opt for nullification in cases where individuals face severe penalties for minor, technical breaches of law that do not cause harm.

Contact Our San Marcos Criminal Defense Attorneys Now

Even though jury nullification can’t be used as a defense strategy in Texas, you should be aware of all possible results the jury could reach in your case. Keeping our clients informed is one of the responsibilities we take seriously at our firm.

If you’ve been charged with a crime in Texas, San Marcos criminal defense attorney Case J. Darwin can help you find the best defense strategy to protect your rights and freedom. Contact our office today to learn more.

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