The Role of the Jury
IN a jury trial, the judge represents the letter of the
law as voted by legislators and interpreted by the highest court of the
land, and also considers the precedents of other court decisions. The
prosecutor represents the interests of the society and the judicial
system. The defense counsel represents the interests of the accused. But
it is the jury that judges the validity of the law, its intent, and the
guilt or innocence of the accused. A juror has the responsibility to vote
his convictions, no matter what the other jurors vote. Frequently we hear
of a juryís vote which is not unanimous when the first polling is
conducted. Eventually, however, all jurors finally yield to persuasion or
to the pressure to support the jurors who are the strongest or most
numerous voices in the group. Each jurorís vote of guilty or not guilty
must be respected by other members of the jury and by the court. To yield
oneís own conviction to the pressure of the majority is to fail in
God-given responsibility as a juror.
In reality, each juror stands as a judge. He/she
represents the highest judge in the land. The judgment of the jury in
favor of the accused cannot be overturned. If one juror withstands the
pressures of his fellow jurors and maintains a "not guilty"
verdict, even though the other jurors have voted for the
"guilty" verdict, it is a hung jury and the judge cannot
pronounce guilt on the accused. However, in such a case, the prosecutors
do have the right to reprosecute the case in court.
The juror must take his role seriously, and it is his
responsibility to understand his duties and obligations. Ultimately, in
any trial it is the jurors who are the judges. In that sense, the term judge
is a misnomer. Sometimes, however, equally significant as the evidence
that is presented, is the kind of evidence which the judge rules as
inadmissible, or to be struck from the record. While such evidence may be
legally inadmissible, it may have great impact upon the guilt or innocence
of the accused.
Of course every juror must take a common sense and
responsible attitude to his duties. For the most part, judges will attempt
to be impartial and to direct the trial according to the best principles
of fairness. But it is important that jurors not take this matter for
granted. If it were true that judges never erred in these matters, then
there would be no likelihood of a higher court overturning a lower court
judgeís decision. The juror must do all in his or her power to ensure
that he/she is not so overawed by the law, nor by his own lack of legal
training, as to allow himself to put aside his good judgment when
evaluating the facts of a case.
In 1794, the Supreme Court conducted a jury trial, and
during that trial, stated,
It is presumed, that the juries are the best judges of
fact; it is, on the other hand, presumed that the courts are the best
judges of law. But still both objects are within your [the juryís] power
of decision Citizenís Rulebook, p. 11
In another case, the State of Georgia versus
Brailsford, et al., it was stated,
You have the right to take upon yourselves to judge of
both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy. Ibid.
In the case of U.S. versus Dougherty it was stated
The jury has an unreviewable and unreversible power . .
. to acquit in disregard of the instructions of the law given by trial
It is almost certain that a majority of jurors who
accept jury duty have no understanding of these principles; and without
understanding of them there is no likelihood that they are going to
exercise this responsibility in the jury deliberation. The Dougherty trial
spoke of jury lawlessness as follows,
Jury lawlessness is the greatest corrective of law in
its actual administration. The will of the state at large imposed on a
reluctant community, the will of the majority imposed on a vigorous and
determined minority, find the same obstacle in the local jury that
formerly confronted kings and ministers. Ibid.
The term lawlessness used here does not mean
that the jury has broken the law or that the jury is in danger of
indictment. Rather it means that the jury displays a willingness to
nullify bad law. (Ibid.) That is a power rarely understood by jurors.
When a judge instructs the jury that it must judge
according to the law as explained by the judge, this is in violation of
the very intent of trial by jury, and of the protective justice of the
nation. Jurors are at liberty to put aside any such instruction from the
judge if it flies in the face of the concept of common justice. To follow
such instruction from a judge will often lead honorable men and women on a
jury, who, while recognizing the injustice of the law in respect to the
person on trial, will nevertheless wrongly believe it their duty to
convict the defendant because he has indeed broken the law. The greatest
loyalty that a citizen can exercise in such circumstances, both to uphold
the civil and religious freedom of the citizens of the nation and the
intent of the Constitution, is to return a "not guilty" verdict
in the face of the specific details of the law.
For this principle to operate properly, the jurors must
come to a trial without preconceived notions as to the guilt or innocence
of the defendant. Nor are the jurors to come with an anti-government
mind-set, otherwise such a juror will be inclined to vote in favor of the
defendant, even when he is patently guilty of a hideous felony. In this
way, the jury is able to maintain the justice of a nation, or to peaceably
restore the liberty of the nation. (Ibid., p. 13). Such freedom is the
cornerstone of the strength of a great nation.
In an article published in the Minneapolis Star and
Tribune, entitled, "What Judges Donít Tell the Jury," it
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the
juryís role as defense against political oppression was unquestioned in
American jurisprudence. This notion survived until the 1850s when
prosecutions under the Fugitive Slave Act were largely unsuccessful
because juries refused to convict.
Then judges began to erode the institution of free
juries, leading to the abused compromise that is the current state of the
law. While our courts uniformly state juries have the power to return a
verdict of not guilty whatever the facts, they routinely tell jurors the
Further, the courts will not permit the defendants or
their counsel to inform the jurors of their true power. A lawyer who made
. . . Hamiltonís argument would face professional discipline and charges
of contempt of court.
By what logic should jurors have the power to acquit a
defendant but no right to know about that power? The court decisions that
have suppressed the notion of jury nullification cannot resolve this
More than logic has suffered. As originally conceived,
juries were to be a kind of safety valve, a way to soften the bureaucratic
right of the judicial system by introducing the common sense of the
community. If they are to function effectively as the "conscience of
the community," jurors must be told that they have the power and the
right to say no to a prosecution in order to achieve a greater good. To
cut jurors off from this information is to undermine one of our most
Perhaps the community should educate itself. The
citizens called for jury duty could teach the judges a needed lesson in
civics. Minneapolis Star and Tribune, November 30, 1984
As presented in Citizen's Rulebook.
The issue of jury rights and responsibilities was
featured on CBS Evening News, June 10, 1995. Anchorman Dan Rather stated,
A jury is supposed to decide facts. Before a jury
begins deliberating, the judge gives instructions about what the law is
and how to apply the law to the case. But some jurors are now getting
instructions from another source, and the message is that they should
ignore any law they donít agree with.
Reporter Peter Van Sant commented,
These people reporting for jury duty in El Cajon,
California, are being told they have an absolute power: the power to
simply vote not guilty if they donít like the law thatís been broken.
Van Sant was reporting upon the activities of an
organization known as the Fully Informed Jury Association. Van Sant
described the organization asó
a collection of patriots who simply want jurors to know
that they have power to judge the law as well as the defendant, that they
can vote their conscience, even if it grieves the evidence and the judgeís
An unidentified judge was quoted as telling a jury,
You may not question the wisdom of any rule or law that
I have announced to you.
The convictions of the founding fathers of the American
nation were on the side of the Fully Informed Jury Association, not that
An article in The Washington Times prescribed a
rather ambivalent view of the concept of jury nullification. In the
article, Ron Christie addresses the issue raised by unnamed legal scholars
who advocate jury nullification [of a law] as a moral alternative to
sentencing criminals guilty of non-violent crimes. Christie acknowledges
the valid role of jury nullification in past history, e.g. in the cases of
those who violated the 1793 and 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts. Thus many guilty
of breaking the law were found not guilty by compassionate juries who
determined that the particular law was unfair. Christie then asks, Is an
unfair law a law at all? While this is a good question in theory, in
practice a bad law is law until overturned by Congress, a court or a jury.
(Ron Christie, The Washington Times, July 22, 1997)
What concerns Christie is that whereas in the past jury
nullification has been used to overturn unjust laws, presently he believes
that many advocates of jury nullification are urging such nullification
for laws that do serve a justifiable role. We agree with him that efforts
to use nullification to overthrow laws against possession, use and
distribution of street drugs is a dangerous misuse of jury nullification.
But we would add that the misuse of jury nullification is not a ground for
denying its use when unjust laws have been passed. We believe juries
should seek, in future cases whenever possible, to nullify laws such as
the limitation of human religious liberty as voted by the Supreme Court in
Smith versus the State of Oregon, 1990. (See chapter 7 entitled
"Erosion of the First Amendment," and for the protection of
citizens against being subjected to torture in any form to obtain
confessions, see chapter 8 entitled "The Supreme Court Overrides the
Of course there are those who fear anarchy if juries
exercise absolute power to judge the merits of the law. That is a real
fear, yet the framers of the principles of the judiciary saw this danger
as preferable to the danger of a legal system that would provide absolute
power for judges to bind the citizens to the law as decided by the highest
court of the land.
In reality, the exercise by a jury of the right to
judge the law is much more common than most citizens believe. Van Sant
That same power [of the jury to judge the law] was
often used in the Vietnam era, when many juries refused to enforce laws
against the burning of draft cards.
We could add that this has happened more recently in
cases such as the assisted suicides of Dr. Kevorkian. While the authors
oppose euthanasia (assisted suicides), the juries that have declared his
innocence have invoked a principle provided by the early jurists of the
Here is a delicate balance. We do not share many of the
concepts of the more radical elements of society, and we certainly do not
advocate anarchy. It takes a truly Christian ethic for the juror to
properly exercise the power that is his by right.
Ultimately, a juror is answerable to God alone for his
decision, and this solemn responsibility should ever be in each jurorís
mind. A republic is a three-vote system of government. It is the three
votes, viz., of the ballot box, of a grand jury and of a regular jury,
that are meant to safeguard, as well as is humanly possible, the civil and
religious freedoms of the citizens of the nation.
In a free society, the first vote is at the election of
chosen legislators: the right to cast a vote in terms of those who will
represent the citizens in the legislative bodies of the nation, state,
city, or county. In many places, citizens possess the right to vote for
those who will be the judges and law enforcement leaders of the people.
The second vote comes, when in a major criminal trial, a grand jury is
A grand juryís purpose is to protect the public from
an overzealous prosecutor. Minneapolis Star and Tribune, March 27, 1987
It is the grand juryís right to decide that the
evidence before the court is not sufficient to warrant the sending of the
accused for trial. In many British Commonwealth nations a Coronial Inquiry
serves a similar purpose to the United States grand jury.
The third and final vote in a free society is that of
the jury. A "not guilty" verdict is the final disposition of a
case from which, under normal circumstances, there is no review. Thus in
this sense, it is the juries of the nation which finally define the laws.
This places the power of the jury, in this respect, above that of the
supreme court of the nation.