The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution theoretically guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” One common misconception is that juries are required to convict if it is clear that the defendant has broken the law in some way. Criminal courts will usually try to pressure juries into following the law, but the point of having a jury trial is that juries can choose to refuse to convict if they feel that the law is unjust and the case should never have made it as far as the courtroom. This is called jury nullification and can pull the teeth of an unjust law if applied consistently.
It sends a message to attorneys and law enforcement agencies that they might as well not waste taxpayer dollars by enforcing bad laws. However, criminal courts will usually fail to inform jurors that they have this option or pretend that jury nullification is illegal. Rights activist Joël Valenzuela put it this way:
“Jury nullification is where a jury decides not to convict based not on whether or not the law applies, but whether applying the law in this case would yield an unjust result. This works as a “people’s veto” to nullify bad laws from a legislature gone awry. Jurors don’t know they have this right, and most think they just have to follow what the judge says. Since courts actively work to keep jurors from knowing their rights, we inform them instead.”
Joël Valenzuela has organized an activist group known as the Rights Brigade with the primary purpose of educating jurors about their right to refuse to return a “guilty” verdict if they feel that the law is unjust. Volunteers hand out pamphlets outlining the right of a jury to refuse to return a guilty verdict if it believes a law is unjust to potential juror as they enter the courthouse. In a recent interview, he said of the Rights Brigade’s mission:
“The Rights Brigade aims to organize activism to fight for the people’s right to freedom in every area of life. Jury nullification activism is a key way we fight for the right to justice.”
Naturally, the Rights Brigade does not have many fans among prosecutors and judges. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that judges are not required to inform jurors that jury nullification is an option. This leads to the misconception that jurors are supposed to follow the law rather than make allowances for facts that might include circumstances that make the defendant’s actions understandable. This problem is especially highlighted in cases like Occupy activist Cecily McMillian, who was convicted of second-degree assault after a police officer reportedly groped her breast from behind and she reflexively elbowed him in the face. The jurors later regretted that they did not know that jury nullification was an option and wrote to the judge, asking that McMillian not be sent to jail.
Those working with activist groups like the Rights Brigade do sometimes face charges brought by court systems that aim to intimidate them. Criminal courts and the prosecution attorneys that regularly work with them naturally fear that jurors can bring their own opinions to a trial and refuse to convict based on strongly held beliefs. Mr. Valenzuela has said that sometimes the Rights Brigade will face minor issues from the court system and the professionals who work most closely with it, even though New Hampshire is a little more flexible on this matter than most states:
“In New Hampshire, jury nullification is specifically protected by law, so we never run into serious problems. The most we’ve had is a new bailiff freaking out until they know what we’re doing or a rogue judge telling jurors to rip up the flyers we’ve handed out. In other states activists have been arrested. As far as I know all charges were eventually dropped, but it’s still relatively risky, and I’d recommend that jury activists outside of New Hampshire lawyer up as a precaution.”
Notably, the Rights Brigade exclusively accepts donations in the cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and DASH, both of which have the advantage of reducing the risk of a third party shutting down the Rights Brigade’s financial accounts and seizing donations. This protects the Rights Brigade from the actions of third parties who might be nervous about the possibility of enabling criminal activity, even though jury nullification is perfectly legal and so is activism on the level of the Rights Brigade’s intent of informing jurors of their rights. Joël Valenzuela lists writing about cryptocurrencies for sites like CoinTelegraph as part of his “day job” and has even been interviewed on the Rights Brigade’s jury outreach program for a piece on this Bitcoin news site.
Mr. Valenzuela said that cryptocurrencies also give the organization more flexibility:
“We operate exclusively with cryptocurrency. This is because using cutting edge approaches to organizing activism allows us to experiment with models that can increase our effectiveness dramatically. We use donations to incentivize activism rather than operate under the traditional nonprofit model with salaried employees.”
Volunteers for the Rights Brigade could receive $10 for their time, or $20 if they have to drive for more than half an hour. Mr. Valenzuela also maintains a website called The Desert Lynx on which he expresses his thoughts on issues such as organizing activism among liberty-minded individuals, which he compared to herding cats. He said of the blog:
“The Desert Lynx is a blog and news site and has been my side project for the last six years, where I work out all the ideas I later implement in other projects. I want to keep it as the nexus of everything else I’m involved in, to educate people about important issues we face today and how people are getting involved to solve them. The name is an homage to my native Southwest and alludes to my approach in dealing with controversial issues head-on no matter the flak that might generate: it takes a cool cat to stand the heat.”
Joël Valenzuela can be found on Twitter (@TheDesertLynx) and Facebook (The Desert Lynx and The Rights Brigade). Besides writing for sites like CoinTelegraph and organizing the Rights Brigade’s outreach program, he is also a certified martial arts instructor who regularly volunteers to give free self-defense lessons.
What do you think about Jury Nullification? Let us know in the comment section below.