Jury Nullification

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.

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  1. Yeah, it’s probably just being a stickler for procedures not some grand statement on jury nullification.

  2. Had a member came back with a not guilty vote against directive, would the judge have then punished that member?

    1. I’m always curious about that. In most courtrooms the judge will tell the jury that they must judge the case based on the law as he describes it and how he instructs them to think about it. Well, judge, it seems like you have your mind made up and you didn’t need to force us to be here at all. So fuck you, I’ll vote how I like.

    2. The judge would most likely declare a mistrial.

  3. I did no think it was even possible for a judge to direct a verdict of ‘guilty’.

    So, is that what this judge *actually* did, or did he poorly choose the wording of his instructions to the jury in light of the defendant’s confession.

    I’m, a stickler for procedure and the judge certainly shouldn’t say things that the jury may consider actual orders that he doesn’t have the power to actually order (especially since the judiciary likes to keep the jury hobbled and ignorant of its actual powers).

    1. It was a pretty clear directed verdict of guilty. From the ruling linked above:

      “In light of Salazar’s confession and the inapplicability of the withdrawal defense, the court thought no factual issue remained, so it instructed the jury “to go back and find the Defendant guilty.” Minutes later, the jury did so.”

  4. Please the court, I suggest the jury be dismissed so that we can move to an immediate Article 39a Session. The witness has rights.

    1. Defense council is fined 50 pounds for showing up.

      1. Before we sentence the deceased, I mean defendant, …

  5. I thought directed verdicts or judgments as a matter of law were pretty much a civil, not a criminal option, except for the defense. Maybe I’ve been away from criminal law too long, but a directed verdict for the prosecution strikes me as unconstitutional. Anyone who knows criminal law care to explain?

    1. I’m not a criminal lawyer (or a criminal lawyer), but I thought there was no such thing as a directed verdict for the prosecution in a criminal jury trial.

      1. Okay, that makes two of us. Of course, we’re evil corporate attorneys working evilly for unpersons, but still.

        The defense can ask for a directed verdict in a criminal trial, but how could the prosecution? If someone could be found guilty as a matter of law, what’s the point of the right to a jury trial in the first place? Leaving out the administrative “crimes,” like speeding tickets and the like, which may allow for such things.

      2. Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Directed_verdict

        “The prosecution may never seek a directed verdict of guilty, as the defendant has a constitutional right to present a defense and rebut the prosecution’s case and have a jury determine guilt or innocence (where a defendant has waived his/her right to a jury trial and allowed the judge to render the verdict, this still applies).”

  6. Smith went on to point out that Salazar may have confessed, but he hadn’t changed his plea.

    The prosecutor was clearly not on his toes: here’s a perjury indictment ripe for the picking!

  7. Salazar presents an interesting contrast: rule of law vs rule of liberty

    Anyways, what’s the rationale for actually mentioning jury nullification in court illegal?

  8. Judges love to conflate Blackstone’s (?) “pious perjury” – where juries deliberately ignore the law – with the jury simply having a different interpretation of the law than the judge.

  9. It’s not technically an endorsement of jury nullification, but of the jury’s right to disbelieve the confession and find the defendant factually innocent. They could believe the defendant misspoke, was tricked, was lying, or mis-remembered. It’s good that there’s plenty of space in there for a non-nullification function of the jury, because it de facto preserves the nullification role of the jury.

  10. “That’s probably not what Judge Smith and his colleagues had in mind.”

    Probably it wasn’t. 🙂 That is why I said “in effect”. Whatever their intentions, that is the fortuitious effect of this ruling.

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