Everyone experiences a moment of dread when the jury summons arrives. Most would rather avoid the hassle, and some have no confidence in law enforcement or the justice system and do not wish to participate in what they view as a corrupt system. There’s no doubt that justice has been lost in the law, that proper courtroom procedure takes precedent over justice, but what better way to keep the system honest than to have complete authority over it as a juror?
We often feel our vote doesn’t count in a general election, but there’s no need to feel that way as a juror. As a sovereign king or queen of the jury your one “not guilty” vote carries more authority than the U.S. Congress, the White House, the district attorney, law enforcement and the Supreme Court combined. As a juror you have the authority to judge the fairness of the law as well as the facts.
Jury duty provides an opportunity to rescue our fellow citizens from bad, unconstitutional laws, or petty prosecutions that should never come to trial. Prohibition was repealed, not because it was unpopular, but because government couldn’t get convictions which meant the law could not be enforced. Jurors didn’t see anything wrong with a working man having a six-pack at the end of the week. The dreaded and despised income tax code would have dried up decades ago had we refused to send our fellow citizens to prison for victimless tax crimes.
If a jury decides that a citizen is being prosecuted under an unfair law they can nullify that law with a not guilty vote. It’s called “jury nullification.” Most judges have an extremely dim attitude towards jury nullification. They will admonish you to follow their instructions regarding the application of the law as written, not to judge the law, or vote your conscience.
If the jury cannot judge the fairness of the law, or vote its conscience, then why bother with it? If the jury is confined to the judges instructions then our court system is nothing more than a rubber stamp of approval for any oppressive laws the politicians can bring to bear against us. Much to the chagrin of the system, you are free to vote your conscience while in the jury room and there’s not much they can do about it.
Fortunately, the question of whether a jury has the right and the power to judge the fairness of the law as well as the facts, and to disregard the judges instructions, was resolved over 275 years ago with the trial of newspaper publisher Peter Zenger in 1735.
A resident in the colony of New York, Peter Zenger was prosecuted for seditious libel against his majesties’ government for publishing articles highly critical of British colonial rule, which forbade any publication without government approval. Peter defied censorship and published the articles anyway. He was arrested in November, 1734, and brought to trial in August, 1735.
During his nine-month pre-trial incarceration, Peter’s brave and loyal wife continued to publish the newspaper. A week before the trial she published an article stating that the jury had the right to vote its conscience, and determine questions of both fact and law.
During his trial Peter Zenger admitted to publishing the critical articles, but argued that the truth of the articles justified their publication. The judge instructed the jury that truth is no justification for libel, that truth makes libel more vicious because public unrest is more likely to follow true statements than false ones.
The judge instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty. Much to the chagrin of the crown, the courageous jurors voted their conscience and after a mere ten minutes of deliberation returned a verdict of general acquittal for Peter Zenger. Without firing a shot the jury had defeated the entire British government.
The framers of the constitution were well aware that the acquittal of Peter Zenger, in contradiction to the judges instructions concerning applicable law, established freedom of the press in the colonies, without which the American Revolution may not have taken place.
Our jury system is the last bastion against government tyranny and abuse. When that jury summons arrives, consider it an opportunity to cast the most powerful vote of your life.