excerpt from the jurors’ handbook: a citizen’s guide to jury duty (318)

jury drawing


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a jury’s rights, powers, and duties

“jurors should acquit, even against the judge’s instructions . . . if exercising their judgment with discretion and honesty they have a clear conviction the charge of the court is wrong.”
– alexander hamilton. 1804.

does the jury’s power to veto bad laws exist under our constitution?

it certainly does! in the february term of 1794, the supreme court conducted a jury trial in the case of the state of georgia vs. brailsford (3 dall 1). the instructions to the jury in the first jury trial before the supreme court of the united states illustrate the true power of the jury. chief justice john jay said: “it is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. but still both objects are within your power of decision.” (emphasis added) “…you have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy”.

so you see, in an american courtroom there are in a sense twelve judges in attendance, not just one. and they are there with the power to review the “law” as well as the “facts!” actually, the “judge” is there to conduct the proceedings in an orderly fashion and maintain the safety of all parties involved.

as recently as 1972, the u.s. court of appeals for the district of columbia said that the jury has an “unreviewable and unreversible power… to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge…” (us vs dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

or as this same truth was stated in a earlier decision by the united states court of appeals for the district of maryland: “we recognize, as appellants urge, the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by the judge, and contrary to the evidence. This is a power that must exist as long as we adhere to the general verdict in criminal cases, for the courts cannot search the minds of the jurors to find the basis upon which they judge. If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused, is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic of passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision.” (us vs moylan, 417 F 2d 1002, 1006 (1969)).

you, as a juror armed with the knowledge of the purpose of a jury trial, and the knowledge of what your rights, powers, and duties really are, can with your single vote of not guilty nullify or invalidate any law involved in that case. because a jury’s guilty decision must be unanimous, it takes only one vote to effectively nullify a bad “act of the legislature.” your one vote can “hang” a jury; and although it won’t be an acquittal, at least the defendant will not be convicted of violating an unjust or unconstitutional law.

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