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The Virtues of Jury Nullification

Prosecutors vs. Democracy

by JONATHAN CARP
In Washington, D.C., Fully Informed Jury Association activist James Babb has placed informative billboards at Metro stations near the courts. These billboards tell passersby about jury nullification, the ancient right of jurors to judge both the facts and the law. The doctrine has a long and venerable history; the right of juries to ignore the law and render whatever verdict they believe just has its roots in the Magna Carta, which declares that “No free man shall be captured, and or imprisoned, or disseised of his freehold, and or of his liberties, or of his free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed […] except by the lawful judgment of his peers.”
The famous colonial era Zenger case clearly demonstrates the use and purpose of jury nullification. John Peter Zenger was charged with libeling the royal governor of New York and, according to the established legal doctrines of the time, should have been readily convicted. However, Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton (no relation to Alexander Hamilton), persuaded the jury that the charges violated the freedom of the press, then quite a novel doctrine indeed. Zenger, in defiance of the law, was acquitted.
Since the American Revolution, jury nullification has been repeatedly upheld by appellate court decisions, and indeed it cannot be undone without abolishing two of the pillars of our legal system, such as it is: First, the right of a jury to deliberate in secret and not to be punished for the verdict it renders; and secondly, the prohibition of “double jeopardy” (trying a defendant twice for the same offense). While courts and prosecutors try desperately to control information about jury nullification, even arresting old men for leafleting in front of courthouses, the doctrine itself remains in place, irritating zealous prosecutors enforcing stupid laws all over the country.
Jury nullification no doubt infuriates prosecutors, judges, and indeed all the petty tyrants of officialdom. Genuine democracy generally has this effect. Our ruling class is pleased to call the farcical, heavily gamed elections periodically held to confirm them in power “democracy,” but the power of the jury to disregard the law and do justice as they see it represents genuine democracy, that is, demokratia, or people power. Indeed jury nullification represents one of the few remaining bastions of genuine democracy in our technocratically managed society. It must be truly maddening for the legal technocrats to have their pompously ridiculous nonsense overthrown by a gaggle of mere citizens lacking, as they often do, fine degrees and prestigious titles. And so they try and try to quash information about the real point of juries — deciding upon a just verdict — in order to render them passive and easily controlled, to turn them from real, functioning juries into inanimate totems used as props for the kabuki shows that we are assured are “fair trials.”
We cannot let them win. The legal system is one of the core functions of the state, and in juries and jury nullification we anarchists are handed a wonderful monkey wrench to fling into its gears. We must, at every opportunity, let our brothers and sisters know about this power that remains in their hands, and if we ever find ourselves summoned for jury duty — especially for a case trying a non-crime, like selling weed or shooting a cop in self-defense — do everything we can to get onto that jury and to acquit the defendant. Anarchism represents the people against power, and we must fully utilize the few legal tools left to us in our war on the rulers.
Jonathan Carp is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and a nurse. He lives in Tacoma, WA.