The History Behind This Jury Tactic Has Impacted Black Communities

justice statue
Zain Murdock
November 15, 2023

Jury nullification is when a jury purposefully votes not guilty because they believe convicting a person would be unjust, even if they think that person is guilty of a crime. This practice has greatly impacted Black communities, for better or worse.

In the 1800s, abolitionists used jury nullification by voting to acquit those “guilty” of breaking the Fugitive Slave Law. 

In 1955, jury nullification had the opposite effect - when racist jurors decided on a not guilty verdict for Emmett Till’s murderers, despite admitting they believed they killed him. Jurors may have acted similarly in police violence cases like Rodney King’s.

Some have been inspired by this history, urging Black jurors to legally practice nullification to help cancel out the impacts of anti-Black laws. Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler, who highlighted Black elders he witnessed vote not guilty in the 90s for nonviolent drug cases, has helped lead the push.

That’s an empowering strategy when abolition is the end goal. Unjust laws have existed throughout history. So, the fact that jury nullification even has to exist weakens the supposed “legitimacy” of the legal system as a whole.

The more we educate ourselves and each other, the more power we have to make informed decisions that feel true to us. And the more tools of liberation we have, the better.

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