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Jury Nullification History And Trayvon Martin

Yesterday, thousands gathered all across the country in 100 cities for rallies on behalf of Trayvon Martin and for something to be done about ‘Stand Your Ground’– the morbidly insane law which allowed George Zimmerman to kill an unarmed teenager and get away with it.

A lot of questions and calls for resolution have been raised in the wake of the verdict, for sure. But the sentiment for many seems to be that the jury has spoken, and that it’s just too bad ‘the prosecution was outplayed’ by the defense for George Zimmerman, and we must accept it. That ‘Stand Your Ground’ was not on trial, here, and neither was Trayvon Martin, for that matter.

The truth is, the jury could have reached any verdict they wanted within the parameters of considering whether or not Zimmerman was guilty of second degree murder, or manslaughter. They decided “Not guilty.” But why?

Jury nullification:

A sanctioned doctrine of trial proceedings wherein members of a jury disregard either the evidence presented or the instructions of the judge in order to reach a verdict based upon their own consciences. It espouses the concept that jurors should be the judges of both law and fact.

Jury nullification pertains to the power a jury has over the verdict in a case before it. It’s been used throughout history as a means to nullify laws relating to issues from prohibition, to The Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, it’s come into play during cases involving marijuana growers, or persons charged with cheating the IRS.

But the uglier side of jury nullification has seen the post-Civil War practice of all-white juries acquitting defendants for crimes against black people and minorities, “especially in the South, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.”

Sound familiar? I think so.

Judge’s instructions in the Zimmerman trial:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony[...]

‘Stand Your Ground’ was, in fact, on trial here. And the jury could have decided to nullify the law, as juries have done with so many laws throughout history.

Trayvon Martin was also on trial, although you’re not supposed to read between any lines, due to some very ugly truths in this country. Like, why aren’t more white people showing up to these Trayvon Martin rallies?

The headlines after the verdict could have been more accurately written as, “Trayvon Martin Found Guilty Of Standing His Ground.” If you substitute Trayvon Martin where George Zimmerman’s name is written in the judge’s instructions, the judge and jury– not so much the prosecution and the defense– decided that George Zimmerman, even though he was the armed aggressor, had more of a right to stand his ground than Trayvon Martin did.

Think about that. Whether or not Trayvon Martin had a right to stand his ground was never even considered.

One of the early cases of jury nullification involved a man by the name of Bill Hickok, more commonly known as Wild Bill Hickok.

It was on this day, actually, July 21, 1865 that Wild Bill shot and killed a man by the name of Davis Tutt over a very public dispute about a pocket watch, a poker game, and what modern day gunslingers and brawlers would argue as “disrespecting me, bro!”


Wild Bill Hickok threatens the friend of Davis Tutt after defeating Tutt in a duel. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1867

During his trial for the very public shooting of Davis Tutt, Wild Bill tried invoking the “mutual combat” law, which turned out could not be claimed as a defense because he showed up armed and ready for a fight. But the judge in the case, looking for a way out for the jury instructed them that they could apply the “unwritten law of fair fight,” and with that, the jury acquitted Wild Bill for the murder of Davis Tutt.

Jury nullification laws and stand your ground laws of the day were instrumental in 1865 in creating a gun-slinging legend out of Wild Bill Hickok.

The jury could have easily convicted Wild Bill, in the same way the jury could have convicted George Zimmerman, but the judge’s instructions in the case left them wide latitude for an acquittal, as in the Zimmerman trial, all but insisting they apply the “unwritten law of fair fight” to reach their decision.

Setting aside the fact that Republicans and the NRA have effectively turned back the clock on the country’s gun laws to the off-to-glory-faced days of the Wild Wild West when a man could kill another man in broad daylight over a dispute about a pocket watch, or humiliation, and still be found innocent of the charges by a poorly-informed jury– the trial of George Zimmerman is a reminder of how far we’ve climbed up the hill as a culture, only to be knocked back down to some dusty bygone era of bad idea gun laws.

The jury had the power to convict George Zimmerman in their hands, the power to nullify bad law, but they decided that George Zimmerman had more of a right than Trayvon Martin to defend himself.

In the aftermath of the trial of Wild Bill Hickok:

A prominent Springfield attorney gave a speech to the crowd from the balcony of the court house, denouncing the verdict as “against the evidence and all decency”[...]

Some things never change. And when they do, there are terrible people ready to make sure that they don’t.

When it all comes down to it, not the judge, nor the prosecution, nor the defense has the power that a jury possesses. The power to nullify bad law is always up to us.