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When a jury is asked to deliberate after hearing the evidence at a trial, they are instructed to apply the facts to the law in order to reach their decision. Judges actually provide juries with written instructions on the legal claims, which usually provide step-by-step explanations on how to apply the case facts to the law. However, on rare occasion, a jury will disregard the law, disregard the instructions, and reach a decision that is at odds with the evidence.
When a jury refuses to convict despite the evidence clearly showing a defendant's guilt, it is called jury nullification. Significantly, when a criminal jury acquits a criminal defendant, double jeopardy attaches and the prosecution cannot appeal or retry the case.
Why Would a Jury Not Follow the Law?
One of the most common reasons that a jury would refuse to follow the law is when the jury believes the law is wrong or shouldn't be applied to a particular defendant. It is not uncommon for juries asked to convict criminal defendants of the most minor of crimes, or petty drug offenses, like marijuana possession, to refuse to follow the law.
However, judges greatly disfavor jury nullification and generally will not allow attorneys to mention, let alone explain, the concept to juries.
Is Jury Nullification Really Legal?
Jurors will never face any legal consequences or liability over the judgments they render, even if they do not follow a judge's jury instructions. When a jury reaches a decision that clearly is contrary to the weight of the evidence in a criminal matter, it only has an impact on that one case. In criminal cases, jury nullification basically equates to an acquittal.
However, in a civil case, if a jury refuses to follow the law, an opposing party may be able to request a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which would allow a judge to overturn a civil jury's verdict if the clear weight of the evidence was not followed.