Jury nullification is defined as the acquitting of a defendant by a jury in disregard of the judge’s instructions and contrary to the jury’s findings of fact. The American jury draws its power from Article III, section 2, which gives juries the right to render verdict in general criminal cases, and cannot be directed by the courts to decide in a certain way. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the appeal of an acquittal, and perhaps most importantly, juries cannot be punished for their verdicts.
While the roots of American jury nullification can be traced to the British legal system, it made an impact on a colonial court case that also laid the groundwork for freedom of the press. As described in the ABA Journal, In November 1733, John Peter Zenger began printing the New York Weekly Journal, a publication largely aimed at airing complaints against the royal governor of New York and other colonies, William Cosby. Cosby eventually had Zenger arrested and charged with libel, which at the time included criticisms of the government, whether or not they were true.
Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, began the trial by stipulating that his client had printed the offending remarks. Playing to the jury, he offered a challenge to the prosecutor: “I hope it is not our bare printing and publishing a paper that will make it a libel. You will have something more to do before you make my client a libeler. For the words themselves must be libelous—that is, false, scandalous and seditious—or else we are not guilty.”
As the ABA Journal writes:
The state’s attorney declared that truth was irrelevant, and that Hamilton’s confession made Zenger guilty under the law. Hamilton, citing the actual wording of the indictment, countered with an argument that would lay the foundation for the First Amendment more than 50 years later: “By it we are charged with printing and publishing ‘a certain false, malicious, seditious and scandalous libel.’ This word false must have some meaning, or else how came it there?” The jury withdrew and within minutes returned to declare Zenger not guilty. “Upon which there were three huzzahs in the hall, which was crowded with people,” Zenger later recalled. The next day he was discharged from prison.
Do you think the Constitution gives juries the right to nullify laws? The Tenth Amendment Center explores this issue.
Learn about other famous jury nullification court cases here.
Lastly, read about the story, covered by Reason, where a man was arrested, tried and convicted for telling people about jury nullification. Do you agree or disagree with the (ironic?) verdict by the jury?