Jury Power Gets a Courtroom Nod in Possible Boost for Nullification


Beinecke Library

Earlier this month, the authority of the jury received a welcome nod from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a case in which the defendant confessed in the courtroom to all of the charges against him, the court ruled that a directed "guilty" verdict was out of line, since the jury still had the right to make its own decision by its own criteria, no matter what the judge thought. For fans of jury nullification, here's a new endorsement of the power of a jury to bring a "not guilty" verdict for reasons of its own.

In the case of United State of America v. Juan Agudin Salazar, Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote:

Juan Salazar was charged with multiple drug and gun violations. At trial, the government presented overwhelming evidence of  guilt; against the advice of counsel, Salazar decided to testify and confessed to all of the crimes charged.  At the trial's conclusion, believing no factual issue remained for the jury, the district court  instructed the jury "to go back and find the Defendant guilty." Because the Sixth Amendment safeguards even an obviously guilty defendant's right to have a jury decide guilt or innocence, we vacate the conviction and remand.

Smith went on to point out that Salazar may have confessed, but he hadn't changed his plea. That left the ultimate decision of "guilty" or "not guilty" in the hands of the jury. Under the Sixth Amendment, he wrote, "a defendant's confession merely amounts to more, albeit compelling, evidence against him. But no amount of compelling evidence can override the right to have a jury determine his guilt."

The Fully Informed Jury Association suggests this case "has in effect re-affirmed the right of jury nullification, in which jurors may conscientiously deliver a Not Guilty verdict even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the law has technically been broken."

That's probably not what Judge Smith and his colleagues had in mind. But accidental victories can still be chalked up in the "win" column.