Jury Nullification by Aram James


 

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The original article can be found, along with comments, at:

http://paloaltofreepress.com/why-a-fundamental-understanding-of-jury-nullification-is-so-critical-to-taking-back-our-criminal-justice-system/

Why a fundamental understanding of jury nullification is so critical to taking back our criminal justice system

May 1, 2012

By

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 for 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 co-founder 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.

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm and is filed under Business, Community Posts, Featured, Fire and Police News, Legal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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The Detectives Diary is an innovative tool combining Private Investigation and Journalism. In 1984, Steve Harvey's Los Angeles Times "Around the Southland" Column entitled Jan Tucker's program of providing low-cost "Opposition Research" services to indigent and working class candidates for public office, "Take Cover: Hired Mudslinger Rides into Town." A 1996 Los Angeles Times article by Henry Chu carried a sub-headline identifying Tucker as a "P.R. Guru." In November 2012, Tucker became Criminal Justice Columnist for Counter Punch Magazine and a commentator for Black Talk Radio. As a private investigator since 1979 and a former First Vice President of Newspaper Guild Local 69, Tucker takes these skills to a new level in the pages of the Detectives Diary with insightful and unique exposures and analysis of history and current events. State Director--California League of Latin American Citizens, Former seven term Chairman of the Board of the California Association of Licensed Investigators, Co-President San Fernando Valley/Northeast Los Angeles Chapter-National Organization for Women, former National Commissioner for Civil Rights-League of United Latin American Citizens, former Second Vice President-Inglewood-South Bay Branch-National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, former founding Vice President-Armenian American Action Committee, former First Vice President, Newspaper Guild Local 69 (AFL-CIO, CLC, CWA), Board member, Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition, Community Advisory Board member--USC-Keck School of Medicine Alzheimer's Disease Research Project
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