Jury nullification is the right of a jury in a criminal case to disregard the evidence admitted at trial and the law as explained to them by the judge and to give a verdict of not guilty for reasons having nothing to do with the case. There may be several reasons for ignoring the evidence and the instructions of the judge. First, they may wish to use a not guilty verdict to communicate to the community their views on a social issue outside the scope of the trial. Second, having to convict a defendant may offend the jurors’ sense of justice and fair play or jurors may believe the law itself is immoral.
A judge is powerless to sanction the jury in any way. The jury is not required to give any reason at all for its decision which cannot be appealed by the prosecution to a higher court because of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution that says a defendant is prohibited from being tried more than once for the same crime.
The right of jury nullification originated in what is referred to as Bushell’s Case, an English court decision from 1670. William Penn, the eventual founder of Pennsylvania, was accused of holding an illegal meeting. The jury, based on inconclusive evidence, acquitted Penn and his co-defendant Bushell. The judge retaliated against the jury by fining and imprisoning them. After several weeks, Bushell asked for an appeal of the trial judge’s action against the jurors. The judge for a higher court set the jury free and said that because reasonable people can look at the same evidence and come to a different conclusion, juries are free to decide as they see fit regardless of whether the judge believes they had an legally adequate reason.
Although this case is English and would not normally be binding in the United States, U.S. courts over a long period of time consistently upheld the right of juries to use the right of nullification. However, the use of this device by juries seems at least on the surface to apply only to criminal cases. Some scholars contend that it takes place in secret because the jury proceedings are confidential but have been unable to document any case that expressly endorse nullification in a civil trial.