Take Back Our Criminal Justice System, Use Jury Nullification

Aram James, former Public Defender, points out one rarely discussed legal right given to juries when they feel application of the law does not meet a true standard of fairness or justice.

On April 19, 2012 New York federal Judge Kimba Wood dismissed an indictment against 80-year old Julian P. Heicklen for alleged jury tampering in the case against him for handing out materials to members of the public regarding the right of jurors to apply the historic doctrine of jury nullification. Nullification is the right of jurors to come back with a verdict of not-guilty even if the jurors believe that the defendant in fact technically violated the law, but the jurors conclude that the law in question is an immoral or bad law or a reasonable law applied in a discriminatory fashion.

In dismissing the case Judge Wood commented that a person violates the jury tampering law only when they try to influence a juror in a specific case pending before those same jurors-- but not for merely handing out informational materials (protected First Amendment activity) to members of the public who come to the courthouse for a variety of reasons--not necessarily related to jury duty.

The right of jurors to veto or nullify an unjust law---or a law that may be fair on its face but is being applied in a discriminatory fashion--is critical to our democracy and to our ability to serve as citizen jurors while being fully informed of our rights and options as decision makers. These rights are essential when our government calls us to sit in judgment regarding the guilt or innocence of our fellow citizens and community members

In an era where our government is increasingly cracking down on dissent (consider the response of the government to the occupy movement or to high profile whistle blowers such as  Bradley Manning or Julian Assange) the decision by a federal judge to toss out an indictment against an 80-year-old citizen advocate for handing out materials to members of the public in front of a courthouse is a powerful rebuff to the U.S.  government’s ongoing efforts to intimidate and steal from its citizens the right to think and speak freely and to exercise their independent judgment in the context of their jury service.

The judge’s decision to toss the indictment goes a long way to prevent---or at least to mitigate-- jury tampering activity by judges and or prosecutors who – on occasion -- purposely attempt to leave jurors with the wrong and intimidating impression: that to do anything other than to convict the person on trial is itself a criminal act.

Historically brave and courageous jurors refused to convict those charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act and other immoral laws despite the best efforts of prosecutors and judges to steer jurors towards a conviction.

In the contemporary setting, if more jurors were fully informed of their right to disregard immoral or discriminatorily enforced laws—such as California’s “Jim Crow Drug Laws” and the racially motivated three-strike law—they would undoubtedly refuse to convict many defendants charged under these morally repugnant and frequently discriminatory laws.

The bottom line is that any grassroots organization attempting to reform or rebuild the criminal justice system from the ground up must understand and be willing to educate members of the public regarding their basic rights as jurors—including the right to veto or nullify bad laws.

Failure to educate the public in this regard is to assist and aid the state in wrongfully convicting members of our own communities. Knowledge is power and it’s time we go out into our communities and spread the word—we can just say no to bad laws.

Judge Kimba Wood’s action in dismissing the indictment in the Julian Heicklen case is cause for wide celebration-since we now know we are on solid legal ground when we decide to organize our communities around fundamental concepts of justice and our desire to take back our criminal justice system. We can take back our criminal justice system from the forces that would prefer that justice be administered and understood for the benefit of the few to the detriment of the majority of people.   The majority of people who must interact daily with the intentionally maintained mysterious and often baffling criminal justice system.

In California –pursuant to the holding in People v. Williams 25 Cal. 4th 441 (2001), jurors are explicitly precluded from exercising the doctrine of jury nullification—in fact if a judge discovers that a juror is refusing to apply the law to a case--he or she may be discharged from the jury. On the other hand, if the judge is unaware that the jury has engaged in nullifying what they perceive to be an unfair or bad law---the double jeopardy clause would prohibit retrial of an acquitted defendant. In Sparf v. U.S. 156 U.S. 51 (1894) the U.S. Supreme Court—in a 5 to 4 decision—held that federal judges are not required to instruct jurors on their right to nullify bad laws.

Understanding the power of jury nullification is one way to even the odds of obtaining justice of all. To learn more about the power of jury nullification check out the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA).

Aram James is a retired Santa Clara County deputy public defender—and a cofounder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP) –a grassroots legal advocacy organization—located in San Jose, CA.

*In a future article the author intends to discuss the provocative and controversial use of race-based jury nullification. The doctrine of race-based jury nullification has been popularized by Law Professor Paul Butler.

About Aram James

Aram James is a former public defender and is a co-founder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project.

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