You weren’t taught about it in school. And, in some cases, it’s been considered a crime to even tell people about it.
It’s the ultimate form of civil disobedience. Which is why we’re going to be talking about it in today’s episode — Day Three of Laissez Faire’s Civil Disobedience Week.
What we’re discussing today is a system of checks and balances to keep government power from growing out of control.
And Americans, unfortunately, are far too ignorant about the power they hold.
It’s called jury nullification. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it…
Jury nullification is a constitutional doctrine which allows juries to acquit criminal defendants who are technically guilty, but who do not deserve punishment. It occurs in a trial when a jury reaches a verdict contrary to the judge’s instructions as to the law.
A jury verdict contrary to the letter of the law pertains only to the particular case before it. If a pattern of acquittals develops, however, in response to repeated attempts to prosecute a statutory offence, this can have the de facto effect of invalidating the statute. A pattern of jury nullification may indicate public opposition to an unwanted legislative enactment.
Jury nullification, in short, allows the people to stand up for the “little guy” in the face of idiotic, unsavory, unjust laws.
No matter the evidence, if the jury finds a law unjust, they can nullify the law rather than finding the defendant guilty.
“Jury nullification is undoubtedly feared,” Kevin Matthews writes on Truthout, “because of its ability to upset the system. A jury that considers drug laws to be outrageous can nullify. A jury that is aware of the mass inequality in incarceration rates and believes a defendant was targeted via racial profiling can nullify. A jury that believes a harmless defendant is a victim of the prison industrial complex rather than a perpetrator can nullify. This counter-verdict exists so that citizens can right the wrongs inherent in our supposed ‘justice’ system.”
Problem is, 99.999% of members of the jury have no clue they wield such power. So, most of the time, they stick to the Statist quo and swim with the herd.
Yes, jury nullification, in the past, has been abused to nullify violent hate crimes by ignorant racists, or to set free overzealous cops clearly guilty of several counts of police brutality.
All the more reason to empower the right people with this secret knowledge.
On this token, jury nullification has done much good.
Below, you’ll find THREE examples of when the people flexed their power against the law. Then, writer and illustrator Ricardo Cortés will show you how we can use jury nullification to end one of the worst human abuses in modern-day America: the Drug War.
First up, let’s take a look at the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when juries refused to charge citizens for protecting freed slaves.
The Fugitive Slave Act Of 1850
According to Wikipedia…
Jury nullification was practiced in the 1850s to protest the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act had been passed to mollify the slave owners from the South, who were otherwise threatening to secede from the Union.
Across the North, local juries acquitted men accused of violating the law. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was a key supporter of the law as expressed in his famous “Seventh of March” speech. He wanted high-profile convictions.
The jury nullifications ruined his presidential aspirations and his last-ditch efforts to find a compromise between North and South. Webster led the prosecution when defendants were accused of rescuing Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner; the juries convicted none of the men. Webster tried to enforce a law that was extremely unpopular in the North, and his Whig Party passed over him again when they chose a presidential nominee in 1852.
The Camden 28
“What do you do when a child’s on fire? We saw children on fire. What, what do you do when a child’s on fire in a war that was a mistake What do you do? Like write a letter?”
– From the Camden 28 documentary
“In the early hours of 22 August 1971,” the Fully Informed Jury Association website reads, “this group of 28 including students, blue collar workers, clergy, and others, most of them would put into motion their direct action against the war.
“Several of them broke into a draft board office in Camden, New Jersey, and set about their work of destroying and removing draft records while others monitored the situation and advised from outside the building. Their goal was to shut the office down. With just a few minutes left before they planned to leave, they were accosted by FBI agents who had lain in wait, watching them work without interfering until they were given the order to intervene.
“63 days after the trial began and nearly two years after their direct action the fate of the Camden 28 would be settled by their jury. On 20 May 1973, concluding an historic trial, the jury who had listened and deliberated over the case for two months declared each and every one of the defendants Not Guilty on every count against them. This jury exercised its right of jury nullification to vacate more than 100 charges en masse in this single trial.
“Subsequent to this abject defeat in court, the government dropped charges against the other defendants who had been severed from this trial. Supreme Court Justice William Brendan would refer to the Camden 28 as “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” Just months after the close of the trial, the U.S. would end its military involvement in Vietnam.
“In 1920,” Frank Parlato writes in the Niagara Falls Reporter, “the US Constitution was amended to prohibit the sale of alcohol because a majority wished to impose their moral beliefs on the minority of citizens. The jury protected citizens from the tyranny of the majority. During Prohibition, juries nullified alcohol control laws about 60 percent of the time.
“The fact that most juries would not convict on alcohol control laws made the use of alcohol widespread throughout Prohibition. Jury resistance contributed to the adoption of the Twenty-first amendment repealing Prohibition. The jury reflecting made prohibition a toothless amendment.”
OK. So, that’s what’s possible. Now, let’s look ahead at what WE can do.
Without further ado, here’s Ricardo Cortés on how you too can shape the law, rather than having the law shape you. More specifically, how you can use jury nullification to kill the War on Drugs.
Be a part of history. Flex your power. Teach others the power of jury nullification. Fight the power.
And read on…
Jury Independence Illustrated
By Ricardo Cortés
So you’ve received a notice to report to jury duty.
What? You’re trying to get out of it? Too busy?
At the risk of sounding like a herb, being on a jury can be one of the greatest experiences of citizenship. As a voter, you’re one of millions. As a juror you are one of twelve, with power over someone’s life.
But there is one thing a jury won’t be told, by neither “the people,” the defense, nor the judge.
In 1734, John Zenger printed an article condemning the governor of New York. Colonial law prohibited publications that did not meet government approval, and Zenger was arrested for seditious libel.
Zenger did not deny publishing the offending work. During his trial, the judge instructed the jury that this admission was evidence enough to convict.
In fact, the jury disregarded the judge’s instructions and found Zenger not guilty, based on what they deemed to be an unjust law.
This landmark case for freedom of the press is one of the earliest and best-known examples of jury nullification: When the jury returns with a verdict of “not guilty” despite evidence establishing that the defendant is guilty as charged.
A jury is designed to protect society from lawbreakers, but it is also a means to protect society from bad law. A jury can nullify a law that it believes unjust or wrongly applied to a defendant. Jury independence is your power to judge the law as well as the evidence, and to vote on a verdict according to conscience.
Judges are not required to inform you of jury nullification power. In many jurisdictions it is forbidden for attorneys to advise a jury of the possibility, and jurors must learn of it through extra-legal sources.
Fear of jury anarchy guides such restrictions, and there are examples of nullification gone awry (e.g. racist juries refusing to convict white supremacists for killing black people).
So when should this special power be used? In all criminal drug cases.
In 2008, the writers of HBO’s The Wire wrote an essay in Time Magazine stating, “If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun’s manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.”
IF you object to how drug use and addiction are treated as crimes, rather than as medical or liberty issues, then jury duty is one of the most powerful legal weapons you have against the Drug War.
The defendant’s apartment was raided, police discovered marijuana plants? The prosecution’s case is airtight? The defendant even confessed?
The defendant sold an envelope of cocaine to an undercover officer? On video!? It’s pretty much a wrap?
No matter what the evidence, it is within your rights to declare the defendants of non-violent drug charges…
[Ed. note: Today’s episode was adapted from Ricardo Cortés’ Jury Independence Illustrated. Cortés is an author & illustrator of books, including Go the F*ck to Sleep, I Don’t Want to Blow You Up!, It’s Just a Plant, and the forthcoming Coffee, Coca & Cola. His website is Rmcortes.com.]
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today