Good Example Of Founded On Skin Color: Jury Nullification On Ethnic Grounds Essay
Ethnicity and Jury Nullification
The mechanism of the trial jury was established by the Framers as a primary, basic safeguard against the government and possible abuse of the same. The jury has the implied power to absolve the defendants in a case, even though testimony and evidence would point otherwise. This power of abrogation, enshrined in the right of the jury to render a decision solely by its own “moral lights,” has led to responsive juries to absolve defendants who the jury members believe as “guilty under the law, but upright in the eyes of society.” Nevertheless, this power of abrogation has not always resulted in “compassionate acquittals,” but rather involves the emotions of the individual jury members that can ultimately result in handing down a hostile verdict.
The power of the jury in a criminal trial to render a judgment that is contrary to the findings of evidentiary and testimonial reasoning is embedded in the fact that a ruling by the jury cannot be assailed, and does not require the jury to explain it; this right has found supporters among the legal community and civic society groups. However, there are those within legal circles that would prefer that the “status quo” remain-that juries are not made aware of the right to nullify rulings; nevertheless, the jury is at liberty to use the power when it believes that the rendering of a guilty ruling against a defendant would foment unrest within the community (Horowitz, 2008, p. 427).
The holding that the jury is the last bastion to attain justice is founded on the premise that in particular situations, the decision of the jury will be reflective of the collective sentiment in the community; simply put, the jury was believed to be the “conscience of the community.” the jury was regarded as a more conscionable “trier-of-facts” compared to judges. Racial conflicts fueled the practice of juries to refuse to find “guilty” defendants, but believed to only victims of persecution by government authorities. As the “conscience of the community,” though judges traditionally instructed juries to apply the law to the case, juries would regularly rebuff tendencies to render a guilty verdict. Depending on one’s belief, the practice of juries abrogating decisions has either greatly contributed to the serving of the “interests of justice” or contributed to the anarchy and the inequality in the justice system (Horowitz, 2008, p. 428).
Furthermore, the power of nullification is indicative of the mandate of the jury to guilty defendant when the jury believes that the law used to find the defendant guilty is unscrupulous. In Sparf v. United States, two sailors assailed their convictions for the crime of murder. The two argued that the rejection of the court of the sailor’s request for specific jury instructions inappropriately interfered with the leeway of the juror’s to find the sailors culpable of the reduced crime of manslaughter. However, the United States Supreme Court found for the lower court, noting that the court did not overstep its bounds and rebuffed the position that juries can make decisions on matters of law. The Court noted that in states where the law allows juries to try both law and the facts in a case, it is allowed to do so. Here, it can be said that the decision allows juries to try cases as to the guilt of the defendant; however, state jurisprudence, such as that in Maryland, reject the position (Keneally, 2010, pp. 942-943).
It seems that racial origins and prisons are bound by an inextricable with each other. For example, the statistics for the African American sector are disproportionately high in the US prison system. Though African Americans represent only 13 percent of the American population, these made up 38 percent of the US prison population in 2011. (Present data shows that of the 2.3 million prisoners in the US prison system, 1 million are African Americans [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2015, p. 1]. What is curious to note is that though African Americans represent a large portion of the prison population, the crimes that these committed are “no different from those that were committed by ‘whites’ or ‘Hispanics, as evidenced in Figure 1(Waldman, 2013, p. 1).
Media coverage of the cases involving racial minorities tended to exacerbate the instances of “jury nullification.” Print as well as television coverage of several controversial, emotionally-charged cases was mainly centered on the composition of the juries, particularly if there was even a slight hint that the jury would exercise its nullification powers. To cite an example, analysts viewed the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial as a “response to the social air” prevailing at the time.
For the African Americans, the outcome was a reply to the “domination” and the “persecution” being waged against them by the “white” majority, and for the instances of sending African Americans to jail and the years of racism done by police and the criminal justice system. For the media covering the event, the decision was imbued with nullification, seeing that the option was the only viable avenue for resolution given the time that the jury deliberated on the matter and the significance of the evidence against him (Keneally, 2010, p. 950).
The power of the jury to abrogate decisions is one issue that has caused highly emotional debates in legal circles particularly when the cases involve ethnic minorities. Several controversial cases when “jury nullification” owing to considerations for race has been evidenced throughout the chronicles of the criminal justice system. Examples of these cases include the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and the trials for Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, the police officers accused in the brutal assault on Rodney King.
However, there are possible instances that juries, out of civic or moral considerations, would nullify the verdict; another possibility is that owing to “reasonable doubt,” the jury would reverse the decision given by the court. There are many that hold to the belief that juries that empathize with the defendant rather than the victim, and proceed to render an acquittal of the defendant, practice “jury nullification.” However, there are possible scenarios that can also be used in showing that juries that practice “jury nullification” do so not as a result of identifying and sympathizing with the defendant (Keneally, 2010, p. 942).
Proponents of “jury nullification” argue that the practice is indicative of the power of juries to state its condemnation of a specific law or mechanism by turning down instances where it should convict the defendant, though the prosecution has successfully proven its case “beyond reasonable doubt.” Recent times have seen advocates for “jury nullification” have seen success in those cases being waged in the “war against drugs,” or in cases involving laws that are regarded as inordinate intrusions of the government. Moreover, “nullification” has been correctly chastised for using “all-white” jury groups to compensate “white” defendants in “racially-engaged” cases (Rinehart, 2013, p. 1).
The lack of any empirical research data is a limiting factor whether to extensively inform potential jury members of the right to nullify decisions juries believe are immoral or unjust. However, there are instances when the jury members have been informed of this right, these opportunities to render another decision was turned down. Here, policy makers and legislators must weigh the benefits as well as the downsides of the practice. When juries desire to exercise their desire to be “consciences of the community,” the desire must be tempered to the actual need to send the defendant to prison for them to be punished for their offenses against society (Horowitz, 2008, p. 452).
Horowitz, I. A (2008). Jury nullification: an empirical perspective. Northern Illinois University Law Review Volume 28 pp. 425-446
Keneally, J.M. (2010). Jury Nullification, Race, and The Wire. New York Law School Law Review Volume 55 pp. 941-959
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (2015). “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” Retrieved 7 January 2015 from < http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet
Rinehart, L. (2013). “The Zimmerman verdict and jury nullification.” Retrieved 7 January 2015 from <http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/08/liz-rinehart-jury-nullification.php
Waldman, P (2013). “Six charts that explain why our prison system is so insane.” Retrieved 7 January 2015 from <http://prospect.org/article/six-charts-explain-why-our-prison-system-so-insane
Figure 1: Number of Inmates in state prisons by race. Source: Waldman, 2013