When they first think about it, most people are upset at the thought that a jury can ignore the law when reaching a verdict. The idea that the judicial system is based on the whims and discretions of a small group of unelected people with no official qualifications besides being licensed to drive a car does seem to run contrary to the American system of government. But, jury nullification is the essence of what makes the American judicial system such a matter of pride to most Americans. A jury should dispense justice, not heartless and legalistic decisions.
Most countries don’t allow their citizens to serve on juries. Their choice in deciding not to embrace the jury system may lie in those countries believing that the law is too complicated for lay persons to understand, that jury duty is too inconvenient for the ordinary citizen, or that having a few hand selected judges render decisions is more efficient. But, the most likely reason other countries do not allow citizen juries and jury nullification is that those countries want to keep their judicial system under the control of the central government, and not in the hands of their lay citizens.
The United States celebrates jury nullification, such as the trial of John Peter Zenger in which the jury refused to convict a defendant despite very overt efforts of the colonial governor to ensure his imprisonment. Cases such as these are why the United States has historically granted juries the power to resist efforts by the executive and legislative branches of government to dictate the results the judicial branch will make. Most Americans who read an account of Zenger’s trial would agree that there were strong justifications for allowing jury nullification in that case. So then why do many people feel comfortable supporting jury nullification in the Zenger case, but not in present day cases?
Some people might believe jury nullification causes more harm than good if jurors are able to rule contrary to laws in immoral ways. Accounts of Southern juries acquitting whites accused of murdering black Americans during the Jim Crow era are an example of jury nullification that is an affront to many people’s conscience. While there certainly are isolated examples of juries handing down unjust sentences, the argument that jury nullification should be eliminated ignores the potential harm that jury nullification prevents.
Jury nullification serves an important role in limiting the power of the government to control the population through any laws it wishes to pass. Because jury nullification is a check against outrageous laws, its existence has likely prevented many attempts by the government to rig the justice system, similar to the attempt Governor Cosby made to control the outcome of the Zenger trial.
Jury nullification is an important cog in the United States judicial system to protect citizens from unjust punishment. It is a unique way that Americans can rebel against laws they believe are unjust. While the power to make verdicts contrary to the law is a huge responsibility to entrust to jurors, instances where jurors have used jury nullification such as the Zenger trial are valid reasons why the United States needs to maintain jury nullification.