Empty Jury Box
Side view of a empty jury box in the courthouse

Jury nullification has taken place when a jury finds someone not guilty in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. The term means that by ignoring the facts and acquitting the defendant, the jury is nullifying the law in the case.

They might do so because they feel the law is morally wrong. It could also be that they feel it is being unevenly applied, or for any other reason, they see fit.

Instances of Jury Nullification

Jury nullification has been going on for centuries.

  • In the 19th century, many juries in northern states openly practiced nullification in cases where the government was attempting to prosecute people for breaking the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A law many in the North felt was immoral.
  • In the early 20th century, many juries refused to convict people being tried for violating laws based on the 18th amendment (prohibition). Prohibition was wildly unpopular and prosecutors found it extremely difficult to get convictions in many cases.
  • Many in the nation were shocked when it happened in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The jury announced Simpson was “not guilty” of murdering his wife Nicole and her friend, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

While the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial apparently felt Simpson was not being treated fairly by the law, the fact is, they reached their apparent nullification verdict organically. That is, they had not been instructed by the trial judge that they had the power to nullify. Why was that?

Nullification as Dirty Little Secret

In the early days of the republic, it was common for judges to inform juries of their right to nullify. However, as time passed judges became convinced that nullification was little more than a recipe for judicial chaos.

They simply stopped informing jury members of their right to vote their conscience. That practice of not informing jurors of their nullification prerogative has continued to pick up steam in contemporary courtrooms, although there are movements afoot to reverse this trend.

Nullification as a Defense Strategy

If you are thinking that perhaps you’ll walk free if your attorney can lay the groundwork for a nullification verdict, you might be right. Defense attorneys use several strategies to steer the jury to nullification, including:

  • Trying to fashion a jury composed of people who are most likely to be sympathetic with the defendant (which is exactly what O.J. Simpson’s legal team did) and
  • Focusing their defense strategy on the character of the accused instead of the crime they are accused of committing.