Jury nullification is the notion that a jury in a court of law should vote according to their prejudices and opinions, rather than according to facts and the law. It is usually mentioned in the context of what’s considered a miscarriage of justice — a cancer patient being put on trial for growing the medical marijuana that makes her condition bearable, a man who stole a candy bar being subject to life in prison if being convicted of his third “strike”, and so forth.
The thing is, substituting your own prejudices and opinions for facts and the law leads to even greater injustices. Consider, for the moment, the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. The facts were not in controversy when two men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were brought to trial for his murder. They had killed him, then they had weighted his body down with a fan, and then thrown it in a river. By the end of the trial, multiple witnesses had made it plain that this is what happened. The jury took 5 minutes to decide that their prejudices and opinions were more important than rule of law, and found the defendants “not guilty”.
That is the kind of injustice that can happen when juries buy into the notion of jury nullification rather than ruling according to facts and the law. It happened many, many times during the Civil Rights era, where smirking KKK members on trial for murdering black civil rights workers, many times even freely admitting they’d killed “uppity outsider nigras who was rilin’ up our own nigras”, were freed over and over again by all-white juries that ruled according to their bigotry, according to their prejudices and opinions, rather than according to facts and the law.
In short, jury nullification is a slippery slope that leads to more incidents, more applications of jury nullification, and the incidents become worse and worse until even murder becomes acceptable if it’s murder of one of them “uppity outsiders”. Which is why it is so worrisome that a jury found Y’all Qaeda “Not Guilty” not only of the charges that had some question about facts, such as conspiracy and theft, but also of charges that are incontrovertible fact backed up by video footage of the defendants themselves committing the offense — that is, the crime of possessing a weapon within a federal facility. In short, this was a clear example of jury nullification taking place, and the repercussions may be with us for many, many years as more of these militia nutcases commit more and more crimes convinced that jury nullification will be their “get out of jail free” card. People are going to die, in the end. Maybe lots of people, in the end. This kind of lawlessness never has a good end, as we found out in the American South during the civil rights era, when many lives were lost as all-white juries let murderer after murderer walk because “I ain’t gonna send no white folk to prison for killin’ a nigger.” Ruling based upon facts and law can lead to injustices, true. But it’s the best approximation we have of justice in this imperfect world. Rulings instead based on opinions and prejudices lead, in the end, to far, far more injustices. Just ask the family of Emmett Till about that one.
– Badtux the Law Penguin