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Independent Juries: Liberty’s Last Defense
By Patrick T. Barone & Brittani N. Baldwin
There is no dispute that American jurors have the right and responsibility of judging the facts in a criminal trial. But what about the law? Should they also be allowed to judge a law or societal practice that they believe to be unjust by returning a not guilty verdict when, perhaps, all of the elements of a crime have been proven?
A typical jury instruction in a criminal case may instruct that the jury may only decide questions of fact, and must take the law as the judge gives it. Jurors are instructed that they can only decide the truth and weight of the facts of the case, and apply the judge’s law to these facts.
When a jury fails to follow this instruction, this act of defiance is called “jury nullification.”1 Jury nullification is the refusal of jurors to convict a defendant despite their belief in the defendant’s guilt.2 The jury is thus said to “judge the law,” though more accurately the jury is judging the law’s specific application, not its general validity. This d
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