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November 4, 2016
"If guilt is proven, should juries always convict?"
The title of this post is the headline of this very interesting new article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch. Here is the context and commentary that follows the headline:
No one denied that Edwin Sobony II savagely beat his wife’s heroin supplier with a baseball bat when the man visited the couple’s Hamilton Township home in December. Sobony admitted to investigators that he did it after repeatedly begging the man to stay away. At his trial in September on charges of felonious assault, his defense attorney told jurors that Sobony’s actions were “felonious as hell.”
Yet the attorney, Sam Shamansky, encouraged the jury to acquit his client anyway. “He assaulted him with this bat,” Shamansky said, holding the weapon aloft during his closing argument. “And you say to yourself, ‘You know what, that’s OK. That’s what I would have done.’ Because no one can challenge that opinion. You can go back in that jury room and believe that and vote for it and nobody can touch you. That’s the beauty of the system. It prevents these kinds of prosecutions from ruining lives.”
Shamansky also told jurors that they could acquit by finding that Sobony acted in defense of himself and his family. But he acknowledged last week that, in case they rejected the self-defense claim, he was trying to persuade them that they could employ what is known as jury nullification to find his client not guilty.
Jury nullification occurs when jurors acquit a defendant, despite the prosecution proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, because they believe the law is unjust or has been unjustly imposed. It appeared to happen last week in Oregon, where a jury acquitted seven defendants who had armed themselves and occupied a national wildlife refuge during a 41-day standoff with federal authorities.
Shamansky’s arguments on behalf of Sobony didn’t work. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding the mail carrier guilty of one count of felonious assault. Sobony, 38, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider.
Not everyone agrees that nullifying a law is an appropriate option for juries. Ric Simmons, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said jurors take an oath to follow the law and return a conviction if the prosecution meets its burden of proof. “In my view, jurors are under a legal obligation to follow the law,” he said.
However, jurors can’t be punished for their decisions, regardless of their reasoning, and their verdicts can’t be appealed. “So jury nullification exists, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Simmons, a former prosecutor.
Others say jury nullification is a time-honored tradition in the United States and was seen by the Founding Fathers as a check on abuse or overreach by the government. It was used by pre-Civil War juries to acquit those charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, it’s been used to acquit those charged with what juries consider antiquated drug-possession laws.
“Jury nullification has played a huge role in the development of our laws,” said Clay S. Conrad, author of “Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine.” “For instance, it’s why we have a range of charges for murder, from manslaughter to capital murder. Juries didn’t want everyone to get the death penalty.”
Conrad, a lawyer based in Houston, said police, prosecutors and judges shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to use discretion in how they apply the law. “If a jury believes the prosecution’s idea of justice is wrong, they should have every right to reflect that with their verdict,” he said. “I think the problem we have with getting more juries to nullify in cases where it is appropriate is because so many people are unwilling to challenge authority.”
The leading advocacy group for jury nullification is the Fully Informed Jury Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 in Montana. The group works to educate the public about jury nullification and says that juries should be informed about it as part of jury instructions. “We’re trying to overcome a lack of information, but it’s more than that,” said Kirsten Tynan, the group’s executive director. “Jurors are almost always going to be misinformed. They’re told by the court that they must follow the law as it’s given to them. “We have to educate people that what they’re being told isn’t necessarily true.”
I got into a bit of a verbal fight with my friend and colleague Professor Ric Simmons about this issue just earlier this week (and thus I love seeing him quoted on this front). Readers may not be too surprised to hear that I am generally a fan and supporter of jury nullification. Indeed, I generally believe that juries should be instructed about their power and right to nullify, though I also believe that prosecutors should be able to explain to jurors why they think broad use of nullification powers could have an array of potentially harmful societal consequences.
In this setting and in many others dealing with jury trial rights and procedures, I suspect views are often influenced by one's broader perspectives on the operation of present (and future?) criminal justice systems (both personally and professionally). I have long viewed US criminal justice systems as bloated and inefficient, and thus I have always been inclined to embrace the jury's role as a critical "democratic" check on the criminal justice work of legislative and executive branches. (The late Justice Scalia's writings in cases like Blakely and other jury-respecting rulings have reinforced and enhanced these perspectives in recent years.) My colleague Professor Simmons obviously takes a different view, and I suspect he will not be surprised to know that I believe his views are at least somewhat influenced by his own professional history before he became an academic.
November 4, 2016 at 11:44 AM | Permalink
"I have long viewed US criminal justice systems as bloated and inefficient, and thus I have always been inclined to embrace the jury's role as a critical "democratic" check on the criminal justice work of legislative and executive branches. (The late Justice Scalia's writings in cases like Blakely and other jury-respecting rulings have reinforced and enhanced these perspectives in recent years.)"
The bottom line is that the Framers required that before a free citizen's liberty was to be taken away the consent of members of society had to be obtained (or a defendant's waiver). That consent may be withheld for whatever reason. That's the system, and absent an amendment to the Constitution, the jury power should not be interfered with.
Posted by: federalist | Nov 4, 2016 11:49:52 AM
The first comment is interesting. One concern is how much we should emphasize the power present. Thus the professor notes:
"juries should be instructed about their power and right to nullify"
Many jurors probably are not aware of it and/or such an instruction would probably encourage a few more that would not otherwise use it. Also, jurors would have different views on the question. Some (this is seen in the death penalty context) would follow the law even if they were personally against the result. So, we can discuss on what they should do in such cases. Since like justices of the Supreme Court, jurors do have a lot of power, and this includes the power to nullify. If they decide "wrongly," the state isn't allowed to put the person in prison anyway. So, it's good to think about.
Posted by: Joe | Nov 4, 2016 11:58:27 AM
I am amazed that the lawyer was able to get away with making that argument. I thought most jurisdictions did not allow an argument anywhere close to nullification (even if nullification itself is respected) let alone do so in such a blatant manner.
Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 4, 2016 2:51:07 PM