I had not heard of the term “jury nullification” when I was selected to be on a 12-person criminal jury about twenty years ago. But over the years I have spent time considering that week of my life. Reading this Daily Beast story dredged up some of those thoughts.
After 20 or so years, my recollection of the evidence presented and my thoughts regarding the whole week have merged into one.
Here is what happened. A young man riding a motorcycle died as a result of hitting a pickup truck just to the left of center of the grill.
The defendant was 19 years old, his wife was 17 years old, they had three children, the pickup truck had no two panels with the same color paint and they had a public defender. They were dirt poor.
The defendant’s story was that they could not get the baby to sleep so they took a drive hoping the youngster would fall asleep. When he would cross a bridge over a creek, he would stop on the left side of the road, take a flashlight and look over the bridge rail trying to find some minnows.
The young man that died had just gotten off work and had just turned onto that road 9/10ths of a mile before he hit the truck. His motorcycle was the fastest production motorcycle sold in the United States.
The left front headlight of the truck may have been burned out. Both the prosecution and the defense had expert testimony as to what happens to the filament of an automobile bulb if it is on and breaks/burns out as the result of an impact. The left headlight was destroyed enough in the accident that it could not be proved whether it was functioning just prior to the impact.
What probably happened was this: The rider, happy to be off work, accelerated to an excessive speed once he got on the road. The rider saw the one headlight and figured it was the left one and thought he has plenty of room to pass the on coming vehicle. There was no evidence that the rider ever tried to stop.
I do not recall what the judges instruction regarding the law were.
My thoughts in the jury room that had the most impact on my thinking was the idea that if there is an accident, each party probably did something that contributed to the accident. If the truck had two working headlights – if the motorcycle rider drove only within the limits of his headlight.
The jury voted 11 – 1 to convict. I was the lone hold out. It was a hung jury. The judge declared a mistrial.
Jury nullification? I don’t know. I do know that I have never doubted the rightness of my position.