The concept of jury nullification is an important concept for experienced criminal defense lawyers to understand. As a by product of our system of justice, a jury has the power to acquit even those who have had the charges poven against them. This is a fact, largely kept secret from the public and not sanctioned by the Courts. In People v. Goetz, the Court of Appeals stated: “While there is nothing to prevent a petit jury from acquitting although finding that the prosecution has proven its case, this so-called mercy-dispensing power,’ . . . is not a legally sanctioned function of the jury and should not be encouraged by the court.”
Jury nullification is when the jury ignores the law because it believes that its application in a specific case is unjust. Essentially, a jury who nullifies believes that the defendant was guilty of the crimes he was charged with, but that convicting him under the specific circumstances would not be in the interest of justice. Jury nullification is not an official part of the criminal law, and in some jurisdictions attorneys who advance a nullification theory to the jury can be sanctioned by the court for violating the profession’s ethical code. Indeed, a defense attorney cannot explicitly request the jury nullify, and if she chooses a nullification strategy, she must go about it subtly.
In June, a state appellate court issued an interesting opinion in a New York burglary case discussing whether an attorney’s strategy to argue for jury nullification constituted effective representation. The court concluded that, given the facts of the case, the chosen jury-nullification strategy was appropriate and a potentially effective defense to the crimes charged. Thus, the court upheld the defendant’s conviction.