Race-Based Jury Nullification Essay
Race-Based Jury Nullification
Internet research clearly showed a long history for jury nullification in the US. An explanation of jury nullification, and in particular race based jury nullification, is that it is a method whereby juries nullify unfair laws by declaring guilty defendants not guilty. Race based nullification is where a jury acquits and individual based on their race. This is commonly found in homogenous juries where there is little jury diversity. Past cases such as runaway slave laws and current cases such as police shootings show that race-based nullification is still an issue in modern courtrooms. The conclusion being that jury nullification is an important power necessary for the checks and balances of the judicial system
Jury nullification is a right enjoyed, but not understood, by all jurors in the US. This right gives jurors the ability to interpret laws for themselves and return not-guilty verdicts for guilty defendants allowing them to nullify laws. (Emal, 1995) The most common admonishment by judges is that jurors must decide the case based on facts, and that they are not in fact interpreting the fairness of laws. The fear is that if jurors knew or understood this power, it could undermine the authority of the US judicial system. Allowing juries to interpret laws is in fact a right given as a foil against a too powerful central government.
Historically there is a tremendous precedent for jury nullification much of it involving race. In the North pre-civil war era juries commonly refused to convict runaway slaves because they felt that the law was unfair. This was an example of jury nullification, where the jury was aware that the defendant was guilty, but refused to return a guilty verdict, in effect nullifying the law. (Emal, 1995) More recently in the 1930’s many courts refused conviction for minor alcohol infractions because they felt the law was unfair. Another example of this trend were the civil rights trials of white supremacists in the south in the 50’s and 60’s; in these cases all white juries would refuse to convict white defendants of the murder of black people or civil rights workers. (Emal, 1995)
These cases clearly show that there have been many examples of jury nullification in the past in our country. Since a return of a not guilty verdict allows the jury to effectively end prosecution with no appeal allowed by the state it means that juries actually have final say about when and if a law is utilized. This allows juries the power to actually use their conscience when voting to convict or release a defendant. One possible outcome of jury nullification is the possibility of a major increase in hung juries.
Race has figured in many instances of jury nullification so there is a clear precedent for race based jury nullification. (Emal, 1995) Recently all white juries have refused to convict white police officers in wrongful shooting trials where the victim was black. Also black juries have refused to convict clearly guilty defendants of crimes on the grounds that there are too many black people in prison already. (Butler, 1995) Another possible reason for jury nullification is to punish prosecutors and police for tactics, which the jurors find unpalatable.
Many people recently felt that the O.J. Simpson trial was race based jury nullification; similarly the Rodney King trial would be an example. In both of these cases many people felt that the individual was guilty but that they were released because of their race. Some states have proposed that juries should have racial quotas in order to avoid possible race based nullification. In this system jurors who should be excused could be kept even if they were unsatisfactory if they fit some particular racial need. These attempts to eliminate jury nullification point to the seriousness with which this power is viewed.
Some black lawmakers have said that since a jury is representative of a community then jurors should have the right to decide which people they will allow to live among them. (Butler, 1995) This basically means that jurors exercise their power based on conscience and not based on the facts of the case. This means that black juries would acquit non-violent black defendants even in cases where they were clearly guilty to nullify the effects of a predominantly white judicial system. The belief here is that the laws are inherently unfair because they were created by and for white people. (Butler, 1995)
Clearly there is a place for jury nullification in the US. There has been a long history of unfair laws and practices in the country and allowing the jury the power to overturn or nullify them is a good way to keep the government in check. (Jones, 2004) The real question is more about race-based nullification. Should race be a factor when juries consider nullification as an option? The answer to this is complicated if a jury really feels that a defendant was targeted unfairly based on race shouldn’t they have some power to affect the trial. (Butler, 1995) Also without a complete revamping of the legal system (scary thought) how would one go about fixing the problem? Can nullification be eliminated with our current system?
The idea is to really re-examine the selection process. With nullification as a real possibility then prosecutors can act to eliminate it by paying more attention to homogeneity during the selection process. Any prosecutor who allows a homogenous jury runs a real risk of losing the case based on nullification. Also race based jury nullification has been a useful tool in the past. (Jones, 2004) If not for northern juries how many runaway slaves would have been returned to torture and beatings in the south. In this case we had a manifestly unfair law which juries exercised a legitimate nullification against.
Overall race based jury nullification is a scary prospect when taken to the extreme but it is a prospect that bears some consideration. Since it has been used righteously in the past it is a hard decision to contemplate getting rid of it. If there was no jury nullification of any kind then the country would have missed out on juries taking a stand against poorly thought out laws. The answer is that jury nullification has played a dual roll in our history. At times it is a useful tool as in the cases involving slavery or differential prosecution, at times allowing racists to go free. So having weighed the merits of the situation it is best left as is currently. There is a real risk for overuse if everyone were aware of the power but in its absence the government would exercise too much power unbalanced by the power of the people.
The conclusion would have to be that there is too much risk in eliminating jury nullification as a whole. Race based nullification is probably not necessary and would be nice to eliminate but there is no effective way to combat this. One possibility mentioned earlier is for prosecutors to consider nullification during the selection process to help combat this problem.
Butler, Paul. (1998). Racially Based Jury Nullification: Black Power in the Criminal
Justice System. Yale Law Review, 105, 677-725.
Emal, Russ. (1995). Jury Nullification: Why You Should Know What It Is. Retrieved on
11/21/04 from http://www.greenmac.com/eagle/ISSUES/ISSUE23- /07JuryNullification.html
Jones Iloilo Marguerité. (2004). American Juror. Retrieved on 11/21/04 from