In what appears to be a stunning assault on first amendment rights, a proponent of a concept called “jury nullification” has been indicted in New York for charges relating to jury tampering. Jury nullification, a term familiar to most experienced criminal lawyers refers to a controversial legal principle in which juries acquit defendants, accused of crimes based upon their own conscience and without regard to the judge’s explanation of the law. Since an acquittal by a jury is final and not subject to appeal, courts may not examine the reason for an acquittal. Therefore, all juries have an inherent right to nullify a charge. The controversy surrounds telling juries about this right.
Courts and prosecutors are inherently antagonistic to jury nullification so jurors are generally never told that they have the right to nullification and in fact are generally told that they must follow the law as instructed by the judge and must convict the defendant if the evidence establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Julian P. Heicklen, a retired Penn State University professor apparently raised the ire of prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York because he handed out fliers to potential jurors outside the Pearl Street, Federal Courthouse and other area courthouses notifying jurors of their inherent right to nullify verdicts. Although he handed out fliers to jurors, he never targeted any specific jury or attempted to influence the outcome of any specific case. In fact, according to a New York Times article Mr. Heicklen identifies himself as a law an order man.
Since, Mr. Heicklen never targeted any specific juries or tried to influence any specific case it would appear that Mr, Heicklen’s conduct is the most basic form of political speech which is afforded the highest first amendment protection.
Tilem & Campbell will continue to monitor the outcome of this apparent assault on our constitutional freedoms.