Is Alaska's Jury Nullification Bill in Line With Founders' View?

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Is Alaska's Jury Nullification Bill in Line With Founders' View?

The Alaska State House of Representatives is considering a bill that would would allow jurors in the Last Frontier “not to apply the law to the defendant” in select criminal cases.

House Bill 315 would officially legalize jury nullification of verdicts in cases where jurors believe the “law is unjustly applied to the defendant.”

One paragraph of the bill grants defendants the “right to inform the jury of the jury's power to judge the just application of the law and to vote on the verdict according to conscience.”

Furthermore, a judge’s failure to allow the defendant to inform the jury of the jury's power is grounds for a mistrial, according to the language of the bill.

Similar legislation has been offered twice before, in 2002 and 2009. Although it failed to pass out of committee in its two previous iterations, the bill’s primary sponsor hopes for a different outcome this time around. "I think we're just more independently minded — maybe we do interpretations differently than other areas," said Rep. Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole).

Wilson called the bill “a check on government that allows the people to judge the laws,” according to a story in the Anchorage Daily News.

That story also adds that Alaska's Department of Law sees potential problems with the bill, should it be enacted.

“Annie Carpeneti, with the department's criminal division, told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the bill would create for unfair trials,” the Anchorage Daily News reports.

Additional stumbling blocks for the proposal were set out in the Daily News story:

In a memo dated Feb. 18, Doug Gardner, director of the Legislature's legal services division, said the bill could run afoul of U.S. Supreme Court decisions going back to the 19th Century. In one case cited by Gardner, the Supreme Court said that "it is the duty of juries in criminal cases to take the law from the court, and apply that law to the facts as they find them to be from the evidence."

An article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the hearing on the bill by the Alaska House Judiciary Committee lasted “less than seven minutes” before being postponed for consideration at a later date.

Although it is the latest, Alaska is not the first state to consider legislation legalizing jury nullification.

Activists in several states are promoting the practice of jury nullification as a way to prevent the miscarriage of justice by the judiciary and the police.

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