Jury nullification wins in Waihopai decision
I must confess that I’m not worried by a jury’s decision to set at liberty the three nutcases who attacked the Waihopai spy base. In fact, I have to say that I’m rather pleased.
I’m rather pleased—not because I agree with Leason, Land and Murnane’s vandalism; or with their arguments to justify their wilful damage (that they mounted the attack “to prevent others' suffering”); or with the “reasoning” used by lawyer John Miller that the jury acquitted the fruitcakes because they “genuinely believed” their actions would save lives.
No, I’m pleased because it’s great to see the concept of jury nullification given legs.
“Jury nullification occurs [says Wikipedia] when a jury in a criminal case acquits a defendant despite the weight of evidence against him or her. Widely, it is any rendering of a verdict by a trial jury which acquits a criminal defendant despite that defendant's violation of the letter of the law…”
The American Fully Informed Jury Association maintains that
“The primary function of the independent juror is not, as many think, to dispense punishment to fellow citizens accused of breaking various laws, but rather to protect fellow citizens from tyrannical abuse of power by government.”
The principle of jury nullification is a just check on government. It’s one way to combat bad law—a pressure-relief valve on tyranny--a long-established method recognising that jurors are entitled to vote on a verdict based not just on the facts in front of them, but according to their own conscience. 150 years ago, following the principle of jury nullification, American juries were delivering not-guilty verdicts for people who freed runaway slaves—freeing people by following their own conscience instead of the law. Today, however, people are being imprisoned by guilty verdicts delivered by unwilling juries unaware that they have the power to set good people free.
Writing about the imprisonment of Ed Rosenthal in 2003, for example, Reason magazine observed:
“Many people, especially conservatives, are troubled by the idea of jury nullification, with its apparent invitation to apply vague, unwritten standards. But the Rosenthal case shows [one example of] how this power, which has a venerable history in Anglo-American law, can help combat a far more dangerous kind of lawlessness.”
To whit: the tyranny of bad law.
It’s true that jury nullification cuts both ways, but to see a jury in this age delivering a verdict which, however much I disagree with it, gives voice to their own conscience instead of black-letter law is, to my mind, progress.
It’s just a shame that what the jurors’ conscience contains is so obviously fatuous.