By John W. Whitehead
“The people have the power, all we have to do is awaken that power in the people. The people are unaware. They’re not educated to realize that they have power. The system is so geared that everyone believes the government will fix everything. We are the government.”—John Lennon
Saddled with a corporate media that marches in lockstep with the government, elected officials who dance to the tune of their corporate benefactors, and a court system that serves to maintain order rather than mete out justice, Americans often feel as if they have no voice, no authority and no recourse when it comes to holding government officials accountable and combatting rampant corruption and injustice.
We’re impotent in the face of SWAT teams that break down doors and leave toddlers scarred for life. We’re helpless to prevent police shootings that leave unarmed citizens dead for no other reason than the police officer involved felt “threatened.” We shrug dismissively over the plight of fellow citizens who have their heads cracked, their bodies broken and their rights violated for failing to jump to attention when a police officer issues an order. And we fail to care about the thousands of individuals who have been punished with extreme sentences for nonviolent offenses and are forced to spend their lives as modern-day slaves in bondage to private prisons and the profit-driven corporations they serve.
Make no mistake about it: virtually anything and everything is a crime nowadays (feeding the birds, growing vegetables in your front yard, etc.) to such an extent that if a prosecutor, police officer and judge were so inclined, you could be locked up for any inane reason.
This is tyranny dressed up in the official garb of the police state. It is the self-righteous, heavy-handed arm of the law being used as a decoy to divert your attention to the so-called criminals in your midst (the fisherman who threw back small fish into the ocean, the mother who let her child walk to the playground alone, the pastor holding Bible studies in his backyard) so that you don’t focus on the criminal behavior being perpetrated by the government (bribery, cronyism, electoral fraud, slush funds, graft, pork, theft, and on and on).
In the face of such abject injustice, outright corruption and overt inequality, it’s hard to feel empowered to believe the average citizen can make a difference. It’s hard to persuade anyone to stand against tyranny when all you can promise them as a reward is persecution, prosecution and a one-way trip to the morgue. And when the outcome seems to be a foregone conclusion—the government always wins—it can seem pointless, even foolhardy, to dare to challenge the system. As such, it’s far easier to buy into the political process, even though elections amount to nothing of consequence.
There are also those who subscribe to the notion that an armed revolution is the only thing that will save America. These armed resistors are making themselves easy targets and will be the first to be taken down by militarized police who are trained to kill and armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon imaginable, from grenade launchers and sniper rifles to armored vehicles and Black Hawk helicopters.
So how do you not only push back against the police state’s bureaucracy, corruption and cruelty but also launch a counterrevolution aimed at reclaiming control over the government using nonviolent means?
You start by changing the rules and engaging in some (nonviolent) guerilla tactics.
Employ militant nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, which Martin Luther King Jr. used to great effect through the use of sit-ins, boycotts and marches.
Take part in grassroots activism, which takes a trickle-up approach to governmental reform by implementing change at the local level (in other words, think nationally, but act locally).
And then, while you’re at it, nullify everything the government does that is illegitimate, egregious or blatantly unconstitutional.
Various cities and states have been using this historic doctrine with mixed results on issues as wide ranging as gun control and healthcare to “claim freedom from federal laws they find onerous or wrongheaded.”
Where nullification can be particularly powerful, however, is in the hands of the juror.
As law professor Ilya Somin explains, jury nullification is the practice by which a jury refuses to convict someone accused of a crime if they believe the “law in question is unjust or the punishment is excessive.”
According to former federal prosecutor Paul Butler, the doctrine of jury nullification is “premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished.”
Imagine that: a world where the citizenry—not the government or its corporate controllers—actually calls the shots and determines what is just.
In a world of “rampant overcriminalization,” where the average citizen unknowingly breaks three laws a day, jury nullification acts as “a check on runaway authoritarian criminalization and the increasing network of confusing laws that are passed with neither the approval nor oftentimes even the knowledge of the citizenry.”
Indeed, Butler believes so strongly in the power of nullification to balance the scales between the power of the prosecutor and the power of the people that he advises:
If you are ever on a jury in a marijuana case, I recommend that you vote “not guilty” — even if you think the defendant actually smoked pot, or sold it to another consenting adult. As a juror, you have this power under the Bill of Rights; if you exercise it, you become part of a proud tradition of American jurors who helped make our laws fairer.
In other words, it’s “we the people” who can and should be determining what laws are just, what activities are criminal and who can be jailed for what crimes.
Not only should the punishment fit the crime, but the laws of the land should also reflect the concerns of the citizenry as opposed to the profit-driven priorities of Corporate America.
Unfortunately, for thousands of Americans who are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes as a result of harsh mandatory sentencing laws passed by “tough on crime” politicians, the punishment rarely fits the crime.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, with every ill inflicted upon us by the American police state, from overcriminalization and surveillance to militarized police and private prisons, it’s money that drives the police state. And there is a lot of money to be made from criminalizing nonviolent activities and jailing Americans for nonviolent offenses.
This is where the power of jury nullification is so critical: to reject inane laws and extreme sentences and counteract the edicts of a profit-driven governmental elite that sees nothing wrong with jailing someone for a lifetime for a relatively insignificant crime.
Of course, the powers-that-be don’t want the citizenry to know that it has any power at all.
They would prefer that we remain clueless about the government’s many illicit activities, ignorant about our constitutional rights, and powerless to bring about any real change. Indeed, so determined are they to keep us in the dark about the powers vested in “we the people” that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1895 that jurors had no right during trials to be told about nullification.
Moreover, anyone daring to educate a jury about nullification runs the risk of prosecution. Just recently, for example, 56-year-old Mark Iannicelli was charged with seven counts of jury tampering for handing out jury nullification fliers outside a Denver courtroom. Now Iannicelli is not being accused of advocating for or against any case in progress, nor is he charged with targeting any particular members of the jury. Nevertheless, Iannicelli could be sentenced to one to three years in prison because he dared to educate the jurors about an option that no judge or prosecutor ever mentions in court: the right to acquit someone who may be guilty if they also believe that the law is unjust.
Such intimidation tactics proved less successful when used against Julian Heicklen, who was accused of jury tampering for handing out nullifications pamphlets in Manhattan. A federal district court judge found Heicklen not only innocent of the charge of jury tampering, but went so far as to warn that the law—18 U.S.C. § 1504—raises significant First Amendment concerns (“the First Amendment squarely protects speech concerning judicial proceedings and public debate regarding the functioning of the judicial system, so long as that speech does not interfere with the fair and impartial administration of justice”).
Jury nullification has played a significant role in our nation’s history. It was championed early on by John Hancock and John Adams and relied on at various points since then to push back against laws deemed egregious, unjust or simply out of step with the times. Most recently, jury nullification has become a popular tactic to thwart laws that mandate harsh punishments for those convicted of possessing even minimal amounts of marijuana.
For instance, in one case I worked on years ago, a jury refused to convict a 54-year-old man who had been charged with possession of marijuana. Prosecutors claimed that a SWAT team, doing an area-wide land and air sweep, had spotted two marijuana plants growing in the hollow of a dead tree on the man’s 39-acre property. Had the man been found guilty, he would have been sentenced to jail and his 90-year-old mother, blind, deaf and dependent on him for care, would have had to be institutionalized.
In delivering his closing arguments, the prosecutor warned the jury that disagreement with the laws against pot possession and disapproval of police tactics are not valid reasons to nullify a case. Of course, those are exactly the reasons why more Americans should opt for nullification.
In an age in which government officials accused of wrongdoing—police officers, elected officials, etc.—are treated with general leniency, while the average citizen is prosecuted to the full extent of the law, jury nullification is a powerful reminder that, as the Constitution tells us, “we the people” are the government.
For too long we’ve allowed our so-called “representatives” to call the shots. Now it’s time to restore the citizenry to their rightful place in the republic: as the masters, not the servants.
Jury nullification is one way of doing so.
The reality with which we must contend is that justice in America is reserved for those who can afford to buy their way out of jail.
For the rest of us who are dependent on the “fairness” of the system, there exists a multitude of ways in which justice can and does go wrong every day. Police misconduct. Prosecutorial misconduct. Judicial bias. Inadequate defense. Prosecutors who care more about winning a case than seeking justice. Judges who care more about what is legal than what is just. Jurors who know nothing of the law and are left to deliberate in the dark about life-and-death decisions. And an overwhelming body of laws, statutes and ordinances that render the average American a criminal, no matter how law-abiding they might think themselves.
As I’ve said before, when you go into a courtroom, you’re going up against three adversaries who more often than not are operating off the same playbook: the police, the prosecutor and the judge.
If you’re to have any hope of remaining free—and I use that word loosely—your best bet remains in your fellow citizens.
They may not know what the Constitution says (studies have shown Americans to be abysmally ignorant about their rights), they may not know what the laws are (there are so many on the books that the average American breaks three laws a day without knowing it), and they may not even believe in your innocence, but if you’re lucky, they will have a conscience that speaks louder than the legalistic tones of the prosecutors and the judges and reminds them that justice and fairness go hand in hand.
That’s ultimately what jury nullification is all about: restoring a sense of fairness to our system of justice. It’s the best protection for “we the people” against the oppression and tyranny of the government, and God knows, we can use all the protection we can get.
Most of all, jury nullification is a powerful way to remind the government—all of those bureaucrats who have appointed themselves judge, jury and jailer over all that we are, have and do—that we’re the ones who set the rules.
If they don’t like it, they can get another job.