Sunday, 21 March 2010

National Jury Nullification Awareness Day

I have just discovered the concept of 'Jury Nullification' and it sounds wonderful.

Over on BoingBoing, on of the most popular blogs on the web, Cory Doctorow has been covering a case where Peter Watts, a critically acclaimed sci-fi writer friend of his, ran into a bit of trouble returning to Canada from the USA. US border guards stopped his vehicle, started searching it, punched him in the face and ordered him to the ground, as he was in a bit of a daze he was too slow complying with their command, that's a felony offence in the US so he may be going to jail for two years.

Somewhere in comments someone mentioned the concept of Jury Nullification, whereby if the law is an ass, the jury can find the defendant innocent even though he broke the law. Apparently its an ancient legal tradition, on of the ways laws get adjusted and keep up to date with the times, except judges in the US aren't allowed to advise the juries on it's existence and its against the law to mention it.

Not so in the UK, judges just don't mention it as it diminishes their power, so its not in their interest for juries to know about it.

Anyhoo, its starts to appear in the comments section of more blogs in regards to the Peter Watts case, and the subsequent comments just highlight how little known it is.
There has been much talk of appeal, and of jury nullification. My understanding is that appeals are only considered on procedural grounds. I don’t know much about jury nullification, and the conflicting opinions I’ve seen here don’t leave me much the wiser.
From Tdawwg, a BoingBoing commenter
Jury nullification due to morally queasy jurors fills me with terror, honestly. Not nearly as much terror as what the guards did to Watts, but enough: anarchy is a horrible substitute for creeping totalitarianism.
Understandably, the fear being that regional prejudices and the voice of the mob could be bad, as commenter StrangeFriend says:-
I can see your point, though. Southern juries refused to convict white men for killing 'uppity' black men.
Its not perfect, but in the UK where the government are churning out so many new laws and we're slowly approaching living in a totalitarian state, it would be a useful too for the people to have at their disposal.

Blogger Avogadro's Number makes this point neatly
Zero tolerance: applying a law to every possible instance, and applying the maximum amount of force allowed, without regard to circumstances.

Jury nullification: negating the zero tolerance effect by considering circumstances and choosing not to enforce an outrageously applied law.
There is actually a precedence for Jury Nullification in the UK, as wikipedia informs us
In 1982, during the Falklands War, the British Royal Navy sank an Argentine Cruiser – the "ARA General Belgrano". A civil servant (government employee) named Clive Ponting leaked two government documents concerning the sinking of the cruiser to a Member of Parliament (Tam Dalyell) and was subsequently charged with breaching section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. The judge in the case directed the jury to convict Ponting as he had clearly contravened the Act by leaking official information about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War. His main defense, that it was in the public interest that this information be made available, was rejected on the grounds that "the public interest is what the government of the day says it is", but the jury nevertheless acquitted him, much to the consternation of the Government.
But that was the best part of thirty years ago. I fear there are too few more recent examples of 12 people knocking back a law they find unjust.

If the government and the courts aren't going to make people aware of the concept of Jury Nullification, then its up to the internet.

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