What is jury nullification and what are its origins and history? What actions by a juror would be considered nullification?

  • Tags on question edited as per meta post
    – jimsug
    Jul 16, 2015 at 5:31

3 Answers 3


Quoting from here,

Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of "Not Guilty" despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding.

In essence, a jury decides that a law should not be legal in the situation, and as such the charge is unwarranted.

One of the first cases was in the trial of John Peter Zenger, in 1735, where a law against libels was used against him, and subsequently nullified by a jury. It was subsequently used against the famous Alien and Sedition Acts, as well as The Fugitive Slave Laws.

Zenger was the first case in America; in 1670, it was used in the case of William Penn and William Mead, who were acquitted of "illegal assembly" as Quakers. In an interesting twist, the jurors were imprisoned, as jury nullification was not explicitly legal, but they were later released.

Interestingly enough, according to The New York Times

In 1895, the Supreme Court ruled that jurors had no right, during trials, to be told about nullification. The court did not say that jurors didn’t have the power, or that they couldn’t be told about it, but only that judges were not required to instruct them on it during a trial.

The Times also wrote that nullification had been used against laws against alcohol and gay marriage, though it did not cite specific cases.

  • 3
    It's worth noting that jurors in the UK are prohibited from disclosing details of their deliberations even after the trial is over, so it's impossible to know for sure when nullification occurs.
    – Flup
    May 27, 2015 at 15:31
  • @Flup Interesting. So in theory, could there have been prior cases?
    – HDE 226868
    May 27, 2015 at 15:31
  • 4
    In theory it could happen in every case :)
    – Flup
    May 27, 2015 at 15:32
  • Some great examples of getting people off of a crime that they legally committed. I wonder, are their recorded cases where Jury nullification were used to increase a sentence past what would normally legally be allowed? Either finding the person guilty for a crime they admit he did not actually do or just increases the severity of the punishment past the normal maximum?
    – Jonathon
    Nov 21, 2015 at 19:57

A jury is charged with finding fact, and is supposed to take the law as given to them by a judge.

"Jury nullification" occurs when a jury bends the law to produce a desired result. This was made possible by English common law, which gave juries great latitude in determining what they would rule on. The underlying power may go all the way back to the Magna Carta of 1215.

One example occurred in "Dickensian" England where theft of an item value at one shilling (twelve pence) or greater carried the death penalty. In order to spare a young defendant this fate, the jury valued a diamond necklace at only 11 pence.

  • 2
    FYI, at least one advocacy group would dispute your first assertion: the Fully Informed Jury Association
    – feetwet
    May 28, 2015 at 0:27
  • 1
    @feetwet: I wrote that's how a jury is "charged," not what they do. I have been on a jury and was "charged" that way.
    – Libra
    May 28, 2015 at 14:15

It has been accepted under English Common Law for centuries, (jury trial began around 1215), that jurors have an absolute right to bring in any verdict, and are not answerable for their decision to any court of law. I believe this is also the case in other English-speaking jurisdictions such as the United States, which adopted trial-by-jury.

In the United Kingdom there has been a fairly recent case involving members of the campaign group Extinction Rebellion, where the jurors did acquit the defendants out of sympathy for their motives. There are other similar cases pending I understand.

This report in The Guardian newspaper 23 April 2021 tells you all about it.

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