Court upholds jury nullification

A victory for jury nullification came in September 1993 when the U.S. Sixth District Court upheld a defendant's right to tell the jury what his sentence would be if convicted.

As reported in the November 8, 1993, issue of Lawyers Weekly USA, the court traced the history of jury nullification from seventeenth-century England to the present-day United States, saying the "Supreme Court has consistently endorsed the traditional power of the jury to nullify a law or a specific conviction."

The defendant in this particular case hoped that the jury would refuse to convict him on drug charges if they knew he "faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years, even though the amount of cocaine involved added up to about three sugar packets' worth," said the defense lawyer, Jude Lenahan of Nashville, Tennessee.

The judge held that "the essential purpose of the jury trial ... is to prevent oppression by the government ... a defendant's right to inform the jury of that information essential to prevent oppression by the government is clearly of constitutional magnitude. ... if community oversight of a criminal prosecution is the primary purpose of a jury trial, then to deny a jury information necessary to such oversight is to deny a defendant of the full protection to be afforded by a jury trial, Indeed, to deny a defendant the possibility of jury nullification would be to defeat the central purpose of the jury system."

The Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have held the opposite of this conclusion, and even the Sixth Circuit may not uphold the decision in future cases.

Lawyers Weekly provided background for those interested: "The circuit rulings that have rejected the holding in this case are U.S. v. Goodface, 835 F.2d 1233 (8th Cir. 1987); U.S. v. McDonald, 933 F.2d 1519 (10th Cir. 1991); and U.S. v. Cox, 696 F.2d 1294 (11th Cir. 1983).

"How To order a copy of this Tennessee Case:

"U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. U.S. v. Datcher, No. 3:92-00054. September 8, 1993. Lawyers Weekly USA No. 9901621 (10 pages). To orders a copy of the opinion, call 800-933-5594."