Arguments in Favor of Race Based Jury Nullification

Published 04 Aug 2016

Trial by jury in the United States is an indispensable part of due process. David A. Wenner once said that it “is the cornerstone of democracy.” In view of its importance in America’s criminal justice system, the American Bar Association estimated that the United States accounts for over 95% of all the jury trials in the world even if England no longer relies on the jury trial. Lord Devlin, British law lord, once said that the jury trial is the lamp which shows that freedom continues to live. For the advocates and supporters of jury trials, the jury is more than an instrument of justice and more than one wheel of the constitution.

However, the performance of the duties of the jurors is often placed under scrutiny especially if they render not guilty verdicts despite the evidence presented against the accused. For instance, in January 2009, the jurors in La Salle County Circuit Court found Loren J. Swift not guilty of the charge of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. Several courthouse observers say that the jurors voted not guilty out of sympathy with him even if they believed that Swift was guilty.

The objections against jury nullification spring from the lack of knowledge of the role of the jurors in the criminal justice system. Jury nullification whether or not on the basis of race is just an exercise of the right of the jury to vote not guilty in a criminal proceeding. When the jury acquits the defendant it is merely performing its solemn duty under the Sixth Amendment which is to ensure that the rights of the accused are protected against an arbitrary and bias judge and against an abusive legislative measure. In fact, since time immemorial, jurors have been instrumental in guarding against abuses. For instance, it was believed that jury nullification was used by jurors whenever individuals were charged under the Fugitive Slave Law, Alien and Sedition Act and alcohol prohibition laws.

Until now, the minorities are still being discriminated in the society. They are the one’s who are suspected of being involved in crime, arrested by the police on flimsy grounds, and charged despite the inadequate evidence. The jurors continue to play the role of the collective conscience of the community. They have the solemn duty to render the not guilty verdict if they find that an injustice was committed against the minorities. It is not actually an issue of race but an issue of nullifying the injustice in the law so as to secure justice for the minorities. The advantage of the jurors is that their perspective is different from the judges, prosecuting attorneys and the lawmakers. Thus, John Adams once said that “It is not only [the juror’s] right, but his duty…to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court”.

On the other hand, the trend nowadays is to limit the powers of the jurors in view of the modern-day resentment against jury nullification. In fact, in 1996, a bill which required judges to inform the juries in criminal trials that they have “the power to judge the law as well as the evidence, and to vote on the verdict according to conscience” was scrapped by the legislators. One of the reasons is that jurors do not have adequate knowledge of the law to be able to make the proper determination of the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Oftentimes, in their desire to protect the accused against abuse and oppression they issue not guilty verdicts even when there is a clear showing of evidence of guilt and remorseless conduct against the accused. Moreover, the very concept of jury nullification is an anathema to the function of the Legislative Branch of Government. When juries issue not guilty verdicts against an accused who is clearly guilty beyond reasonable doubt in view of the evidence against him, the jurors are deemed to be nullifying the law. It is the same law which was passed by the legislature who are the same individuals voted and chosen by the public to represent them and to pass laws for the common good.

Jury nullification on the basis of race is an issue that is difficult to prove. It is my argument that it is still in the best interest of the criminal justice system for the jurors to be allowed to perform their function. It is my opinion that jury nullification, in general, promotes the best interest of the criminal justice system. In the first place, there is always the presumption that the individuals chosen as jurors in a criminal proceeding know enough about the importance of their role in the criminal justice system that they will not take it for granted. Secondly, it is always better for the jurors to be allowed to perform their solemn function under the constitution rather than to limit them. Jurors’ perspective is different from the perspective of the judges, lawyers, prosecuting attorneys. It is precisely why jurors are needed during criminal trials. Unlike the prosecuting attorneys they do not have the pressure to win every case, they file against the accused. Unlike judges who in their zeal to obey the wishes of the higher authority may give in to these pressures, jurors are not subject to any pressure from any higher authority. Unlike the attorneys who have the duty to please their clients, jurors do not have to please anybody. Jurors can simply decide on the basis of what their conscience tells them.

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