Eyewitnesses can’t be trusted?

Here is an innocent man who spent 30 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Seattle Times article. Because of cases like this, this Seattle criminal defense investigator is against the death penalty. Because of cases like this, this investigator is strongly motivated in my criminal defense and personal injury cases to get the best information from witnesses that I can and to expose unreliable witnesses when I find them.

Eyewitness identification is unreliable. We’ve known that for a very long time. An eyewitness can be honest, but wrong. An eyewitness can be confused by a variety of factors. An eyewitness can lie for a variety of reasons. An eyewitness can be manipulated by careless or unscrupulous law enforcement officers. In the absence of substantial collaborating evidence, why do we continue to accept eyewitness testimony as sufficient to convict anybody of anything?

Juries trump judges?

Juries trump judges?

And prosecutors and legislators?

While I’m on the subject of jury duty, here’s a peculiar feature of the law that some prosecutors and judges and others in the legal field seem to be afraid might become general knowledge.

Jury nullification

General public knowledge of jury nullification might put greater power in the hands of juries than that held by judges, prosecutors and legislators (in a very limited but useful sense).

The concept of jury nullification challenges the idea that, in the courtroom, judges interpret the law and juries interpret the evidence and render verdicts under the instructions of the judge regarding the law and its application.

Jury nullification allows the jury to ignore the judge’s instructions and, in essence, nullify, or throw out, the law or its application in the specific case being tried. Jury nullification is the finding by the jury that either the law is a bad law or it is being applied improperly in a specific case.

The concept is centuries old and is based in Common Law, which is part of the foundation of our legal system. Its history in North America starts in 1734 when a printer named John Peter Zenger was acquitted of seditious libel, contrary to the instructions of the judge hearing the case.

Jury nullification challenges State power. As such, it is a dangerous, subversive and powerful tool for maintaining the peoples’ hold on power.

It has a potential dark side. Theoretically, it could be used by a jury of racists or homophobes to acquit a person guilty of a hate crime.

On the other hand, consider the medical marijuana controversy. What if juries in Federal courts refused to convict medical marijuana growers, distributors and users in States that have legalized such use? Could the Federal government continue to interfere with the medicinal use of a proven, beneficial and natural drug?

There are a lot of questions that come to mind as I study jury nullification; I’m just getting started. It’s not my purpose here to expound on a complicated and controversial subject. I would be happy if a few of my readers pursued the study, on their own.

Following is a list of web-based resources. Google for more.

Reactions?

http://www.fija.org/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jury_nullification

http://www.levellers.org/jrp/

http://www.crfc.org/americanjury/nullification.html

http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/zenger/nullification.html