Wesleyan University professor discusses jury nullification at lecture


Sonali Chakravarti, an associate professor of government and politics at Wesleyan University, speaks during her lecture on jury nullification in Oak Hall on the UConn campus in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Most people don’t know that going to jury duty gives them the power to enact democratic change in the legal system through a controversial and little-known power called jury nullification.

Associate Professor of Government and Politics at Wesleyan University Sonali Chakravarti introduced “radical enfranchisement” based on the provision of jury nullification Monday at a lecture in Oak Hall. She said she conceived of the idea when she asked herself a simple question: “What if people could use their experience to make legal decisions?”

“Juries have the possibility of being one of the most democratic institutions we have in the sense that people not represented in final decision making elsewhere are able to serve on juries,” Chakravarti said.

Jury nullification, Chakravarti said, could change the game for jury service, giving immense power to average citizens.

“Why don’t we transform citizenship and jury service in a way that leads people to think about severe consequences in a jury decision on the law and politics?” she said. 

The idea of a three-verdict option is unheard of to many students of politics and law, and even less-known to the average citizen who serves on a jury. The lecture hinged on improving efforts for instructing jury nullification.

“I was not aware of [jury nullification],” Lucy O’Sullivan, second-semester pathobiology and pre-veterinary science major, said, who attended the lecture on behalf of her American Politics class. “We’ve talked about the court system a lot.”

“The whole nullify option is intriguing to me,” Collin Sullivan, second-semester political science, economics and pre-law major said, who also had not heard of nullification before. “That’s the controversy of it, the nullification [verdict] would go with the not guilty [verdict].” 

This opens up a window for jurors to decide whether a law itself is unconstitutional, and allows them to weigh certain “goods” when making a decision.

People can weigh those goods, such as “I want to floor precedence,” or “I understand the law is meant to be the standard but there are moments when citizens have to consider two different ideas in the political system,” Chakravarti said. 

Radical enfranchisement of jurors requires deeper commitment to both internal reckoning (looking into their experiences) and the engagement on deliberation on a jury.

“As a thought experiment, it might be interesting to think about how even a 10 percent nullification rate might put pressure on lawmakers or prosecutors to go about it in a different way,” Chakravarti said.

Questions arose as to the effect nullification may have on prejudice and institutional racism in jury decisions, such as the idea that blacks convicted of killing whites are far more likely to be sentenced than the reverse. 

“There are numerous ways to exclude potential jurors based on race due to ‘racially neutral explanations,’” Chakravarti said. She emphasized that in order for jury nullification to enact legal change there needs to be a different selection process.

For now, Chakravarti says her focus is on spreading awareness to enact nullification as part of a legitimate three-verdict option for juries.

“Often democracy questions are left to people we consider to be experts. I think the jury is an especially important place for others to make decisions,” Chakravarti said.

Amanda Campanaro is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at amanda.campanaro@uconn.edu.

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