Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can Juries Ignore ‘Immoral’ Laws by Nullifying Them?

What can a jury do to protest an “immoral” law? Return a verdict of “not guilty” to nullify it. Mansfield Frazier on why jury nullification is back in the news—and why the feds are cracking down.

Retired Penn State chemistry professor Julian P. Heicklen, 78, was arrested by the feds earlier this year for alleged jury tampering, a charge that carries a maximum six-month prison sentence. He’s charged with standing outside the federal courthouse on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan (something he’s been doing on a fairly regular basis since 2009 without incident) and providing passersby with pamphlets that state:
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“The judge will instruct the jury that it must uphold the law as he gives it. He will be lying. The jury must judge the law as well as the facts. Juries were instituted to protect citizens from the tyranny of the government. It is not the duty of the jury to uphold the law. It is the jury's duty to see that justice is done ... Once on a jury, must I use the law as given by the judge, even if I think it's a bad law, or wrongly applied? The answer is ‘No.’ You are free to vote on the verdict according to your conscience.”

Heicklen also sometimes passes out information supplied by the Helena, Mt.–based Fully Informed Jury Association, whose literature states: “The FIJA mission is to inform all Americans about their rights, powers and responsibilities when serving as trial jurors. FIJA works to restore the political function of the jury as the final check and balance on our American system of government.” In their view, jurors can “nullify” laws they don’t agree with by returning a verdict of not guilty—even in the face of clear-cut and overwhelming evidence of legal guilt.

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