Jury nullification refers to a jury's knowing and deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law either because the jury wants to send a message about some social issue that is larger than the case itself, or because the result dictated by law is contrary to the jury's sense of justice, morality, or fairness. Essentially, with jury nullification, the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict even if jurors believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant broke the law. This can occur because a not guilty verdict cannot be overturned and jurors are protected regardless of their verdicts.
There are differing perspectives on the role and basis of jury nullification in American jurisprudence. Some view jury nullification as a right, but there are examples of people being punished for disseminating the information. For instance, two people passed out pamphlets about jury nullification in Colorado and were later arrested and charged with jury tampering. Indeed, jury nullification is technically a discretionary act, and is not a legally sanctioned function of the jury. As such, jury nullification is considered to be inconsistent with the jury's duty to return a verdict based solely on the law and the facts of the case, and counsel is not permitted to present the concept of jury nullification to the jury.
However, there is a historical basis for jury nullification. Its origin is seen where juries in colonial America used jury nullification to protest the British by acquitting defendants. There are other historical examples as well. For instance, in the 1800s Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Clause, which compelled citizens of all states to assist law enforcement “with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves.” Some abolitionists used the jury system to protest and refused to convict people under these laws; this was also seen with prohibition laws.
States also differ on jury nullification. In California, Judge Jan Goldsmith requested an opinion about jury nullification (related to the case Sparf v. United States) in which the decision was that the California trial jury did not have the right to refuse to apply the law. The Supreme Court case Kleinman v. United States confirms this sentiment.
See also: U.S. v. Thomas, 116 F.3d 606 (2d Cir. 1997); People v. Douglas, 178 Misc. 2d 918, 680 N.Y.S.2d 145 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1998); United States v. Manzano (In re United States), 945 F.3d 616 (2d Cir. 2019)
[Last updated in October of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]