A Federal judge ruled last month that jury nullification, a legal concept dating back to 17th century England and accepted in the U.S. Constitution, is still lawful in the Nation.
Nullification is a concept that allows jurors to acquit criminal defendants who are technically guilty if they believe the person does not deserve to be punished. Prosecutors, however, have argued that promotion of this right to jurors constitutes a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1504, which prohibits influencing a juror by writing.
In the case of 80-year-old Julian Heicklin who stood outside the Federal courthouse in Manhattan with a sign that said “Jury Info” and handed out pamphlets from the Fully Informed Jury Association before being arrested by the FBI, U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood said no laws had been broken.
The FBI charged Heicklen with criminal jury tampering after he handed one of the pamphlets to an FBI agent posing as a juror.
Wood’s 24-page order states:
The statute thus prohibits a defendant from trying to influence a juror upon any case or point in dispute before that juror by means of a written communication in relation to that case or that point in dispute. It also prohibits a defendant from trying to influence a juror’s actions or decisions pertaining to that juror’s duties, but only if the defendant made that communication in relation to a case or point in dispute before that juror. The statute therefore squarely criminalizes efforts to influence the outcome of a case, but exempts the broad categories of journalistic, academic, political, and other writings that discuss the roles and responsibilities of jurors in general, as well as innocent notes from friends and spouses encouraging jurors to arrive on time or to rush home, to listen closely or to deliberate carefully, but with no relation to the outcome of a particular case.
Accordingly, the court reads the plain text of the statute to require that a defendant must have sought to influence a juror through a written communication in relation either to a specific case before that juror or to a substantive point in dispute between two or more parties before that juror.
Nullification played a role in guaranteeing freedom of religion when William Penn was prosecuted for preaching Quakerism, and in freedom of the press in the trial of John Peter Zenger when he was charged with criticizing the king during Colonial times. With more than 4,500 Federal laws on the books and an ever-growing legal bureaucracy, nullification may be vital to reducing harmful prosecutions.