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SAN FRANCISCO–Jurors must follow the law–not their consciences–even when they strongly believe the law will produce an unjust result, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court rejected a centuries-old doctrine called “jury nullification,” which gives jurors the power to follow their convictions rather than the law.
“A nullifying jury is essentially a lawless jury,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for a unanimous court.
Nullification, a doctrine rooted in old English law, has been debated by judges, lawyers and legal scholars for decades. In recent years, advocates of nullification have seen it as a weapon against unpopular tax laws and increasingly harsh criminal sentences.
Monday’s ruling was the first in which the state high court directly confronted the principle. The court held that a judge properly excused a juror who said he could not convict an 18-year-old man of unlawful sex with a minor–the defendant’s 16-year-old former girlfriend.
“Encouraging a jury to nullify a law it finds unjust or to act as the ‘conscience of the community’ by disregarding the court’s instructions may sound lofty,” George wrote, “but such unchecked and unreviewable power can lead to verdicts based upon bigotry and racism.”