| Tuesday, May 8, 2001
Say Jurors May Not Vote Conscience
Ruling: The law must be followed even if panelists believe the result
will be unjust, state's highest court finds.
SAN FRANCISCO--Jurors must follow
the law--not their consciences--even when they strongly believe the law
will produce an unjust result, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court rejected a centuries-old doctrine
called "jury nullification," which gives jurors the power to follow their
convictions rather than the law.
"A nullifying jury is essentially a lawless
jury," Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for a unanimous court.
Nullification, a doctrine rooted in old
English law, has been debated by judges, lawyers and legal scholars for
decades. In recent years, advocates of nullification have seen it as a
weapon against unpopular tax laws and increasingly harsh criminal sentences.
Monday's ruling was the first in which the
state high court directly confronted the principle. The court held that
a judge properly excused a juror who said he could not convict an 18-year-old
man of unlawful sex with a minor--the defendant's 16-year-old former girlfriend.
"Encouraging a jury to nullify a law it
finds unjust or to act as the 'conscience of the community' by disregarding
the court's instructions may sound lofty," George wrote, "but such unchecked
and unreviewable power can lead to verdicts based upon bigotry and racism."
The court acknowledged that in criminal
cases, juries may continue to nullify the law unless the judge discovers
it before a verdict. Although a judge can throw out a guilty verdict if
it was not supported by the evidence, a jurist has no authority to override
a verdict that favors a defendant.
Monday's decision, however, is likely to
deter nullification because a new jury instruction requires jurors to
inform the judge whenever a fellow panelist appears to be deciding a case
based on his or her dislike of a law, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Karl S. Mayer.
Mayer, who represented the prosecution in
the case before the high court, called the court's decision a "clear rejection"
of jury nullification.
"If it comes to the attention of the court,
this should stop it," Mayer said.
University of Santa Clara law professor
Gerald Uelmen said the ruling is particularly timely because the new jury
instruction will increasingly force judges to decide whether to remove
jurors for nullification.
Even with the instruction, nullification
probably will persist, he said. In most cases, "jury nullification is
not explicit," Uelmen said. "It is almost subliminal. The jury applies
a higher standard of reasonable doubt because they don't like the law."
Nullification's history in the United State
is long and broad: Northern jurors used it to protect runaway slaves prior
to the Civil War and, conversely, some juries in the South refused to
convict whites who killed or assaulted blacks or civil rights activists.
More recently, juries have spared draft
resisters and marijuana users. Juries also have refused to find some defendants
guilty because they believe sentences under the three-strikes law are
American courts that have considered nullification
have generally ruled against it. On the other hand, the constitutions
of three states--Georgia, Indiana and Maryland--say that jurors should
judge questions of law as well as fact.
Judicial decisions in those states have
"essentially nullified" the constitutional provisions, George noted in
Until this week, the California Supreme
Court had not clearly confronted jury nullification because the practice
is generally hidden from a court's scrutiny, lawyers said. Most jurors
do not admit that they are basing their decisions on disagreement with
Lawyers said the court also might have been
more inclined to take on the subject now because of debate about jury
nullification in the wake of such highly publicized cases as the O.J.
Simpson murder trial. Once considered an arcane subject, jury nullification
is frequently debated in scholarly circles and in the news media.
In ruling against nullification, the court
considered the Santa Clara County case of Arasheik Wesley Williams, who
was charged with raping his former girlfriend. To find that a rape had
occurred, the jury also had to find that the defendant illegally had sex
with a minor.
Williams had admitted he had sex with the
teenager but said it was consensual. On the first day of juror deliberations,
the foreperson informed the judge that one of the jurors refused to follow
instructions on statutory rape because he believed the law was wrong.
Superior Court Judge Paul R. Teilh questioned
the juror. "It's been reported to me that you refuse to follow my instructions
on the law in regard to rape and unlawful sexual intercourse, that you
believe the law to be wrong, and therefore, you will not hear any discussion
on that subject. Is that correct?" the judge asked.
"Pretty much, yes," the juror replied.
A few minutes later, the juror told the
judge: "I've been told [statutory rape] is a misdemeanor. I still don't
see--if it were a $10 fine, I just don't see convicting a man and staining
his record for the rest of his life. I think that is wrong. I'm sorry,
The judge, over the defendant's objections,
replaced the man with an alternate juror. Williams was convicted of assault,
false imprisonment and torture and sentenced to six years in prison.
He appealed on the grounds that the juror
should have been allowed to remain on the panel because jury nullification
is acceptable. The attorney for the defendant in the case could not be
reached for comment.
While rejecting Williams' appeal, the court
noted that juries still have the capability to nullify the law in criminal
cases because of double jeopardy protection for defendants. A defendant
who has been acquitted of a charge cannot be charged a second time with
it, even if the court later learns jury nullification played a role in
But these jury powers do not "diminish the
trial court's authority to discharge a juror, who, the court learns, is
unable or unwilling to follow the court's instructions," George wrote.
In a footnote, he said the court was expressing
no view on whether a judge can instruct a jury specifically that it has
no power, as opposed to right, to render a verdict contrary to the law.
By leaving the question unanswered, defense
attorneys may try to inform juries that even though they are not supposed
to nullify, they do have that power, McGeorge School of Law professor
J. Clark Kelso said.
"Suppose defense counsel says, 'Jury, you
have no right to make up the law, but you do have the power to do it.'
Would that be improper? I don't know," Kelso said.
Even with that possible opening, the ruling
in People vs. Williams, S066106, will be helpful to prosecutors, Kelso
said. "It gives the prosecutor another tool in closing arguments," the
law professor said.
In a separate decision Monday, the court
overturned a Los Angeles robbery conviction on the grounds that the judge
had improperly dismissed a holdout juror. Superior Court Judge Richard
R. Romero replaced the juror with an alternate after fellow jurors complained
that he was refusing to deliberate.
The state high court ruled that the evidence
did not support the finding. "The juror simply viewed the evidence differently
from the way the rest of the jury viewed it," George wrote.
The dismissed juror may have "employed faulty
logic and reached an 'incorrect result,' but it cannot properly be said
that he refused to deliberate," George said in People vs. Cleveland, S078537.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times