Jury Nullification and Black Communities in the US

From UBC Wiki

In the United States, jury nullification—the process of a jury's deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law because of the message it sends or because the result is viewed as unjust, usually in criminal cases[1]—has historically affected African American communities. While it has prevented unfair prosecution in modern days and during the days of abolition[2], it has also allowed prejudice and crimes against blacks to go without consequence.[3][4][5] In cases where the prosecution is black, defendant is black, or crime involved a black individual, race and jury nullification have historically played a disproportionate role in American trials.

Legal Factors

Impartial Jury

In the United States, the sixth amendment protects the rights of American citizens to an impartial jury[6].

On one hand, jury nullification inherently asks the jury to act their own beliefs, morals, and prejudices.[7][8] Impartiality may be tainted through implicit bias, outside influence during a case, or other forms of jury misconduct.[9]

On the other hand, an impartial jury is fundamental to a fair trial[10][11] in order to prevent oppressive use of power from the government[12][13]. Impartiality includes the ability to judge the merits of the law in question[14]. In cases where the law itself is flawed, the jury can step in to pardon the defendant from unjust charges. In order to perform their role as check on the government, jurors have used jury nullification to fight against unfair laws or unjust implementation[15].

The responsibility of the jury is to determine guilt or innocence of the defendant. This verdict then goes to the judge and allows them to create a sentence if the situation permits.

Double Jeopardy Clause

In the United States, the fifth amendment protects the rights to due process.[6] Within due process, the Double Jeopardy Clause protects individuals from being tried for the same offense twice.[6]

In practice, this results in jury decisions having a large impact on the cases going forward. If the jury votes to convict, the defense can appeal the decision with the court afterwards.[16] If they cannot decide (also known as a hung jury), then the case is labeled a mistrial and can be tried again.[17] However, if the jury find the defendant innocent, the case can not be appealed because that would be against the Double Jeopardy Clause.[16] Therefore, when jury nullification is used in cases that end with an acquittal, the case ends and no further action can be conducted.[9]

No Responsibility

In the United States, juries are tasked with the responsibility to deliver a "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict on regards to the defendant of the case.[16] After hearing the arguments, the jury goes into a private deliberation with the other jurors to discuss and decide the case.[18] Once decided, the foreperson—the head juror that will speak for the group—delivers the final verdict to the judge and court.[19] The jury is not asked as to why they made their verdict, how they got to their conclusion, or which jurors voted which way.[18] Outside of the deliberation, jurors hold no accountability to their choices.[20] This includes cases in which a juror uses jury nullification.


In Sparf v. United States, the US Supreme court ruled that the trial judge had no responsibility to notify the jury of their ability to use jury nullification.[21] Furthermore, the courts have not only held the lack of need to notify the jury of jury nullification but, in some cases, do all to prevent it.[14] Therefore, many United States citizens are unaware of jury nullification since jurors are not allowed to be told about the ability during a trial according to the Supreme Court.[22]



Abolitionist Movement

In the 1850's, the United States passed a series of five bills that would later become the known as the Compromise of 1850[23]. One of these bills enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, a law allowing owners of slaves to reclaim them if they escaped to a free state.[24] This law was intended to legitimize the South's right to slaves and property by not only requiring their return, but also insisting that citizens—regardless of North or South loyalty—had to participate in upholding this law[25].

However, many northerners claimed the law was infringed on state rights[2]. To protest the Fugitive Slave Law, some northerners continued to assist escaped slaves and, if serving on a jury, voting to acquit fellow abolitionists.[26] Despite finding the defendants guilty of defying the Fugitive Slave Law, abolitionists voted them innocent due to their shared opinion that the law itself was unconstitutional.[2]This use of jury nullification was successful in producing hung juries/not-guilty verdicts, and forced dropped cases on basis of preceding acquittals[26][27].

Early 1900's

Scottsboro Boys

On March 25, 1931, nine African-American boys—ages 13 to 20—were travelling on the Southern Railway through Tennessee from Chattanooga to Memphis when they were pulled off by the Paint Rocky, Alabama sheriff.[28][29] The boys were told that Ruby Bates and Victoria Price alleged the group had raped the two white women and were being arrested.[30]

Facing an all-white jury, the Scottsboro Boys—named so after the first trial location in Scottsboro, Alabama—were indicted of the rape charges on March 31, 1931.[30] After the first trials, eight of the nine boys were found guilty of the rape charges and sentenced to death.[29] The ninth boy was allowed a re-trial due to him being 13 years-old.[3] The boys' lawyers then appealed the decisions due to inadequate attorneys and a racially-bias jury.[30][3]The U.S. Supreme Court then reversed the decisions of the Alabama High Court and called for the cases to be re-tried.[30][3]

During the second trial of one of the boys, Ruby Bates admitted, while on stand, that she and Price had fabricated the story and claims.[3] Despite the medical examiner confirming Bates's admission, the jury enacted jury nullification and voted guilty despite the evidence at hand.[3] The judge set aside that verdict and ordered a new trial for the boy.[3]

After the final round of trials in 1936, none were acquitted.[3] Five of the boys would go on to serve sentences in prison, four of which would later be paroled.[3] The other four boys had all their charges dropped later in 1937.[3]

Late 1900's

A painting by Dr. Lisa Whittington depicting Emmett Till.

Emmett Till

On August 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till—a fourteen year-old boy—was brutally beaten to death and thrown into the Tallahatchie River, for allegedly flirting with a white woman in a grocery store[31]. Two men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were arrested the next day and charged with the boy's kidnapping and murder.[31]

In the Deep South, a prominent fear for whites was, if the men were to be found guilty, the message sent to the blacks.[32] They feared that flirting with and disrespecting white woman would only be the start to the challenges against southern traditions in the Jim Crow era by the black community.[32] White opinions that Bryant and Milam did what any white should've done in that situation or that Till deserved what he got perpetuated the white public opinion that the charged men were justified in their actions and, therefore, should be acquitted[32].

On September 22, 1955, the Emmett Till murder trial took place.[32] Due to their second-class status, black men were ineligible to sit on the jury so, for the case at hand, the entire jury was composed of white men.[31]

After four days of questioning, testimonies, and about an hour of deliberation, the jury returned with the verdict of not guilty.[31]

A few months later while interviewing with national media, Milam and Bryant admitted to committing the crime but, due to the Double Jeopardy Clause, were never convicted.[31][33] No time has been served for the murder of Emmett Till.[33]

Later, in 1963, Hugh Stephen Whitaker interviewed all of the jury members and found that "not a single one doubted that Milam and Bryant, or the Negroes supposedly with them, had killed Emmett Till"[4] Despite not believing in the defense's case, the jurors voted for acquittal because the fact a black person insulted a white woman was enough for them to justify the actions of the defendants.[4] In this case, jury nullification was used on the basis of racial prejudice and allowed two men to go free after committing the murder of Emmett Till.

Rodney King

On March 3, 1991, Rodney King—an African-American motorcyclist in Los Angeles—was pulled over for speeding after a brief chase and brutally beaten by four officers.[34] Unbeknownst to the officers, the beating was recorded on film by a witness, George Holiday.[35] As a result, the four officers are formally charged with assault and other charges.[34]

The trial, planned to take place in April of 1991, was moved to Simi Valley, California—where a large population of LA police officers lived—due to the tense political climate in Los Angeles.[34]

At the trial, the video was a key point for the prosecution in showing the visual proof of the officers assaulting King.[36] However, despite the video evidence, the jury—composed of no black members—used jury nullification and acquitted the four officers of the charges brought against them after about six hours of deliberation.[5] This event later sparked the LA riots to begin.[34]

OJ Simpson

On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death outside of Nicole's Los Angeles condo.[37] Nicole's husband, Orenthal James Simpson—celebrity American football player better known as OJ Simpson—was the prime suspect for the crime and was arrested and charged June 17.[38]

The extremely publicized trial, held on January 24, 1995, was presided by Judge Lance Ito and a jury composed of six black women, two black men, two Hispanics, one white woman, and one juror who identified himself as half white and half Native American.[39] The defense based their main argument not on the basis that OJ Simpson didn't commit the murder, but that evidence had been mishandled and the Los Angeles Police were racist.[37]

Due to OJ Simpson's race and celebrity status, the trial was followed by many major media sources.[39] As a result, public opinion varied greatly, largely divided among racial lines; most African Americans in support of OJ's innocence and most whites believing in his guilt.[37] In March 1995, about 60 percent of whites in a national sample said they believed Simpson to be guilty while 68 percent of blacks believed Simpson innocent.[39]

On October 2, 1995, after about four hours of deliberation—though the decision wasn't delivered until October 3rd—the jury returned with a unanimous verdict of not guilty.[37] It was found that most of jurors had already made their decisions before closing arguments.[37] Besides the majority black jury, the threat of riots akin to the ones after the Rodney King trial and the desire to maintain public reputation were cited as to why the unanimous verdict occurred.[37] The jury used jury nullification because, while some believed he was innocent of the murder, the jury was more concerned about the systemic issues through the legal system that the OJ Simpson case revealed and acquitted in response to those problems.[37]

At the end of the trial, 83 percent of blacks agreed with the acquittal, while only 37 percent of whites did.[39]

In a civil case regarding financial compensation for Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman's families held less than four months later, OJ Simpson was found guilty and required to pay $33.5 million in damages.[37]


Black Lives Matter Movement

Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag on social media in 2013 following the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.[40] The primary object of the movement is to push for substantial change for black communities in response to police brutality and systemic discrimination.[40] It is argued that it is better for black communities, pragmatically and politically, to free some non-violent lawbreakers rather than imprison them because it is believed most African American crimes are the result of systemic white racism that should be addressed instead of punishing the offspring of it.[41]

One primary way advocates have pushed for justice has been the increased awareness of jury nullification as a method of addressing institutional racism. Jury nullification has been deemed a legal and important way to stop unjust laws, fight individual racial bias, and combat systemic racism.[42] Advocates hail jury nullification as a non-violent and effective method for not only people of color to use, but also allies of the Black Lives Matter Movement.[43]


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