His indictment, trial and acquittal on sedition and libel charges against the Governor William Cosby of the New York Colony in 1735, with the noted lawyer Andrew Hamilton acting in his defense, were important contributing factors to the development of freedom of the press in America. The Zenger decision helped clarify the beliefs of early Colonial life and lay the groundwork for the responsibilities of both media and government in a functioning democracy.
The first notable instance of jury nullification in the colonial United States occurred when in 1734 a jury refused to convict John Peter Zenger of seditious libel for publishing a newspaper critical of the governor. Jury nullification appeared in the pre-Civil War era when juries sometimes refused to convict for violations of the Fugitive Slave Act. During the 20th century, especially in the Civil Rights Movement, all-white juries were known to refuse to convict white defendants of murdering blacks. During Prohibition, juries often nullified alcohol control laws, possibly as often as 60% of the time. This resistance is considered to have contributed to the adoption of the Twenty-first amendment repealing the Eighteenth amendment which established Prohibition. In the 21st century, many discussions of jury nullification center around drug laws that some consider unjust either in principle or because they are seen to discriminate against certain groups. A jury nullification advocacy group estimates that 3–4% of all jury trials involve nullification, and a recent rise in hung juries is seen by some as being indirect evidence that juries have begun to consider the validity or fairness of the laws themselves
Jury nullification means making a law void by jury decision, in other words "the process whereby a jury in a criminal case effectively nullifies a law by acquitting a defendant regardless of the weight of evidence against him or her."
Jury nullification is more specifically any rendering of a verdict by a trial jury, acquitting a criminal defendant despite the defendant's violation of the letter of the law. This verdict need not disagree with the instructions by the judge concerning what the law is, but may disagree with an instruction, if given by the judge, that the jury is required to apply the law to the defendant if certain facts are found.
Although a jury's refusal relates only to the particular case before it, if a pattern of such verdicts develops in response to repeated attempts to prosecute a statutory offense, it can have the practical effect of disabling the enforcement of the statute. "Jury nullification" is thus a means for the people to express opposition to an unpopular legislative enactment.
The jury system was established because it was felt that a panel of citizens, drawn at random from the community, and serving for too short a time to be corrupted, would be more likely to render a just verdict, through judging both the accused and the law, than officials who may be unduly influenced to follow merely the established law. Jury nullification is a reminder that the right to trial by one's peers affords the public an opportunity to take a dissenting view about the justness of a statute or official practices.
Despite perceived righteous applications of jury nullification, this verdict anomaly can also occur simply as a device to absolve a defendant of culpability. Sympathy, bias or prejudice can influence some jurors to wholly disregard evidence and instruction in favor of a sort of "jury forgiveness." “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution. “ Thomas Jefferson, 1789 letter to Thomas Paine and “The jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy.” —John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court
Jury nullification is a de facto and traditional power of juries, not normally disclosed to jurors by the system when they are instructed as to rights and duties. The power of jury nullification derives from an inherent quality of most modern common law systems—a general unwillingness to inquire into jurors' motivations during or after deliberations. A jury's ability to nullify the law is further supported by two common law precedents: the prohibition on punishing jury members for their verdict, and the prohibition (in some countries) on retrying defendants after an acquittal; and the constitutional prohibition on retrying criminal defendants (see related topics res judicata and double jeopardy).
Jury nullification is the source of much debate. Some maintain that it is an important safeguard of last resort against wrongful imprisonment and government tyranny. Others view it as an abuse of the right to a jury trial that undermines the law. Some view it as a violation of the oath sworn to by jurors. Others view the requirement that jurors take an oath to be unlawful while still others view the oath's reference to "deliverance" to require nullification of unjust law: "will well and truly try and a true deliverance make between the United States and the defendant at the bar, and a true verdict render according to the evidence, so help [me] God." United States V. Green, 556 F.2d 71 ~.1 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Some fear that nullification could be used to permit violence against socially unpopular factions The safeguards against abuse of jury nullification during conviction are the requirements for the jury, the judge and any courts of appeal to be unanimous. Nevertheless, some opponents of jury nullification maintain conviction through nullification is sufficiently threatening to minority rights to counter-act benefits to minority rights during acquittal through nullification of unjust law. Jury nullification may also occur in civil suits, in which this distinction between acquittal and conviction is of course irrelevant.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt as to the ability of a jury to nullify the law. Today, there are several issues raised by jury nullification.
. First, whether juries can or should be instructed or informed of their power to nullify.
. Second, whether a judge may remove jurors "for cause" when they refuse to apply the law as instructed.
. Third, whether a judge may punish a juror for exercising his power of jury nullification.