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Jury Nullification Argumentative

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  • Category: Law

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             In a jury trial, the jury is only required to come up with either a “guilty” or a “not guilty” verdict without having to explain how it reached its decision or justify the same. In fact, jury deliberation is so confidential that nobody outside the jury room knows how the discussion progressed or how the jurors examined the facts involved in a case. The jury system has been so structured that juries sympathetic to defendants were found to return not guilty verdicts even if the defendants actually violated the law. This power attributed to the jury is called “jury nullification” or the power to invalidate the law when juries deem a need to. A nineteenth century example was the act of juries in the northern states to acquit persons charged with violating slave laws for facilitating the escape of slaves. Similarly, during the 1950s in the southern states, juries returned a “not guilty” verdict in the cases of white men charged with killing civil rights workers notwithstanding the proliferation of evidence against them (Dressler, 2001).

            Advocates of jury nullification contend that the jury trial was provided by the Sixth Amendment to prevent criminal defendants from being harshly dominated or railroaded by government. This is the primary reason why defendants are offered the chance to choose, if they so desire, if they want to entrust their fate to the “common-sense judgment” of their fellow citizens who are likely to be more sympathetic than a judge who, while definitely more competent in the letter of the law, could be less than compassionate. According to them, the jury system is the “community’s safeguard [not only] against morally unjust or socially undesirable (albeit legally proper) criminal convictions” but also against established statutes which the jurors deem immoral or unjust (Dressler, 2001).

            On the other hand, its opponents argue that the practice of allowing juries to decide what laws are just or unjust and then base their verdicts on such conclusions destroys the very foundation of American democracy which affirms that only the duly elected representatives of the people are granted the authority to make laws and amend those already established laws found to be unjust. Besides, critics of jury nullification contend that when juries ignore the law for whatever reasons – sympathy for the accused included – they are guilty of violating the oath which they took before they were impaneled (Dressler, 2001).

            Race was brought into the debate by Professor Paul Butler who urged all African American jurors to resort to jury nullification whenever Blacks were charged with nonviolent and victimless crimes. Specifically, he said: “[F]or pragmatic and policy reasons, the black community is better off when some nonviolent lawbreakers remain in the community rather than go to prison.” Butler added that black jurors should make use of jury nullification to condemn the discrimination against African-Americans which resulted to a situation where more black defendants are being convicted and incarcerated than white offenders. He was, however, contradicted by Professor Andrew Leipold who argued that his proposal would ultimately result to anarchy because other minority groups (like the Latinos) would certainly follow their example. Leipold urged Americans to adhere to the principle that skin color should not be the reason for sending people to jail (Dressler, 2001).

            The history of the American justice system is replete with race-based jury nullifications. A classic example was the case of Lemrick Nelson Jr., an African-American who was accused of killing a Jewish scholar in Brooklyn. He was acquitted by a black-dominated jury despite the fact that he was positively identified by the victim before succumbing to stab wounds. Reports had it that Nelson even celebrated his acquittal with some of the black jurors after the trial (Leo, 1995).


Dressler, J. (2001). UNDERSTANDING CRIMINAL LAW. LEXIS Publishing. Retrieved

            September 26, 2008 from


Leo, J. (1995). The Color of the Law. Retrieved September 26, 2008 from


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