Malheur Refuge news stuns lay people and legal scholars

Jurors Exercise Fundamental Right They Cannot Even Be Told About
WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 27, 2016): In a stunning loss for federal prosecutors, the leaders of a 41-day armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were acquitted of virtually all of the charges brought against them although the undisputed facts seemingly established their guilt.

The most reasonable – and perhaps the only – explanation for this shocking result is that the jurors exercised a right which, though fundamental, is one that lawyers cannot urge the jurors to exercise, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

 

Malheur Refuge photo

Malheur Refuge

Photo by USFWS Pacific

The jury almost certainly based its acquittals on the doctrine of jury nullification – a right which goes back even before the Declaration of Independence, says Banzhaf, although it has been used rather frequently in modern high profile trials.

Although well established in law, this is a fundamental right judges usually will not even permit lawyers to argue to a jury.

Indeed, here supporters of the protesters on trial marched around the courthouse with signs saying “Google Jury Nullification,” hoping that jurors would come to understand that, despite what the judge tells them, they need not follow his instructions.

Under the doctrine of jury nullification, a jury (or any individual member of the jury) may refuse to vote for a conviction no matter how clear and compelling the evidence, if it is believed that a conviction would in some sense not be fair, or would be contrary to the public interest.

It is particularly useful when jurors feel that the government has overreached and/or, although the defendants did act wrongfully, their technically illegal acts were nevertheless justified by the circumstances.

It was used, for example, by many Northern juries to find “not guilty” people caught helping runaway slaves escape because of the widespread believe that such laws were themselves wrongful, and that those who worked with the underground railroad should be rewarded, not punished.

On the other hand, Southern juries often returned the favor by finding white defendants who had unlawfully harmed or even hung blacks, for acts which were deemed offensive only because of race, not guilty under the same rationale.

Juries from as far back as the historic trial of John Peter Zenger, and perhaps as recently as the cases of Oliver North and Bernhardt Goetz, have exercised their power to vote “in the teeth of the evidence and the law” and refuse to convict no matter how clear and compelling the evidence, if it is believed that a conviction would in some sense not be fair, or would be contrary to the public interest.

More recent trials in which juries apparently have been swayed as much by perceived governmental misconduct as by the weight of the defendants’ guilt include the cases of Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, subway shooter Bernhardt Goetz, former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, New York Black activist Al Sharpton, reputed mob boss John Gotti, Bensonhurst (NY) defendant John Vento, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, and in he beating trial of Reginald Denny.

What do you think about the Malheur Refuge ruling?