Jury Rights Day
Friday, September 5, 2008, marks the 338th anniversary of the day when jurors refused to convict William Penn of violating England's Conventicle Acts, despite clear evidence that he acted illegally by preaching a Quaker sermon. In refusing to convict Penn, the jurors refused to enforce what they knew to be an unjust law. This is known as jury nullification.
By refusing to enforce what they knew was an unjust law, the Penn jurors not only served justice, but provided a basis for our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, and peaceable assembly. For their refusal to obey the judge's instruction to find Penn guilty, the judge sent four of Penn's jurors to prison for nine weeks. Their later release and exoneration established forever the English and American doctrine that it is the right and responsibility of all jurors to decide matters of law and fact in any case before them. Jurors stand as the last line of defense for people being prosecuted under unjust laws by overzealous government prosecutors and court officials.
The founders of this nation intended that jurors in all cases would know of their rights and responsibilities to judge the law, its application, and the facts in each case, to ensure that justice is served. The Sixth and Seventh Amendments are included in the Bill of Rights to guarantee that every person brought to trial has the benefit of the protection of a jury.
It was understood by the founders that all matters brought to the courts were to be considered by a jury of independent, free individuals, who were not beholden to the courts or government, and who would freely render a verdict based on justice, even if in direct opposition to the courts and the law.
Jury nullification is an integral part of our judicial system, serving as one of the "checks and balances" required by a free society. An individual juror has the power to stop an unjust prosecution by refusing to convict. This fact is unknown to most jurors today, and has contributed greatly to the decline of the authority of the jury in our court system.
Our Founding Fathers accepted the common law principle of jury nullification as an important safeguard for a free society: a test that all laws must pass. Jury nullification has been used by jurors throughout our history to "nullify" unpopular and unjust laws, from laws against free speech to slavery to Prohibition.
Governors across the nation have signed Jury Rights Day Proclamations recognizing this right and authority of the juror to render a verdict based on conscience and in the service of justice.
The Fully Informed Jury Association is a not-for-profit research and educational group dedicated to informing all Americans of their right and duty to judge both the law and the facts, and to render a verdict based on their conscience and their own best sense of justice, even if contrary to the directions of the court.
This September 5, private groups across the nation will hand out educational literature, provide interviews, give talks to civic groups, and send letters to their local newspapers to encourage people to learn more about the rights and responsibilities of jury service, as well as to encourage those on trial to demand their right to a trial by jury.