A hopefully quick criminal law/jury question.

Last night a friend and I were in quite the disagreement WRT the amount of discretion a jury does, should, or can exert in a criminal trial.

Side A: The jury does not make any value judgement only a simple yes or no that the prosecution has or has not brought forth evidence that meet the criteria for a conviction.

Side B: A jury has a responsibility to not just examine the facts and specific criteria of law but also to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, the intent of the accused, and many other grey areas that come into play.

So basically I guess it comes down to this, if I as a juror have a hard time believing the testimony of a witness, am I legally obligated to convict on the basis of their testimony as rendered even if I think they are exaggerating, spinning things in an extremely flattering or unflattering light depending on whos witness they are, or any number of things that may make for a poor or difficult to believe witness or piece of information.

One of the primary duties of the jury is to determine credibility of witnesses. Counsel from both sides plus the judge will remind the jury of this.

So if the jury thinks a witness was lying, it is their duty to disregard the testimony.

ETA: Plus, I assume you are aware of the doctrine of nullification.

Supplemental question: is a juror ever legally obligated to convict? By that I mean, could a juror face legal penalties for failing to convict a person who was guilty? Since juries, presumably, decide guilt or innocence, the idea makes no sense to me, but it was suggested to me in a discussion on another forum a few days ago.

The jury’s job most definitely includes judging the credibility of testimony; particularly by comparing it to the evidence and other testimony. Ideally, they shouldn’t base too much on their personal experiences and prejudices, but they are human, after all, not lawyers.

A typical criminal jury’s charge will include an express admonition that they are “the judges of the facts” and must evaluate the testimony and evidence as to its credibility.

The intent of the accused most definitely comes into play if a distinction is being made between, say, first and second degree murder and/or manslaughter. A jury may be asked to decide if the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the victim and it was pre-meditated (first-degree murder) or that he killed the defendant but it was not pre-meditated (possibly second degree murder or manslaughter) or maybe even something else like negligent homicide. The judge will spell out the differences in these matters and it’s up to the jury to deliberate the often subjective facets of the prosecution’s case to see which charge, if any, has been proven.

In the English-derived system, never[sup]1[/sup]. And as a bonus, while trial judges in many jurisdictions have the power to disregard a jury’s guilty verdict, a not-guilty verdict can not be so overturned.

[sub]1. That doesn’t stop the defendant’s cousin Moochy from pranking a juror to death with a tire iron, though.[/sub]

Perhaps the person making the suggestion was referring to the practice long ago in England when juries were virtual agents of the crown. Bushell’s Case in 1670 saw the jurors jailed for refusing to convict William Penn, who later had Pennsylvania named after him. Their convictions were later overturned.

I think that question is answered in the prior link on nullification.

For my part, I’ve always wondered to what extent an attorney might be able to argue, explicitly or implicitly, for a jury to exercise its nullification powers.

That could be, but I don’t know. His comments were in the context of a death penalty debate (the details of which would be just one hijack too far) in which he argued that jurors who voted to acquit people who were “obviously guilty” should face legal sanction. The argument didn’t make a lot of sense to me - surely juries decide who’s “obviously guilty” and who isn’t.

That’s a point. Can a lawyer actually stand up and say “Yes, I know my client is guilty, but you should acquit anyway because <reason>”?

I am loath to mention this, but I must say, Neil Boortz.

The last time I had jury duty, the defense attorney did this in a round about way. The evidence presented during the trial was pretty damning. During the final statements, the defense attorney based her whole argument on reasonable doubt of a couple of the witnesses, not on the innocence of her client. She did her job, 2 jurors took her comments to heart and the case was dismissed because of a hung jury.

That sounds like a plain old reasonable doubt argument to me – no nullification there.

A nullification argument is where the defense argues that the jury should disregard the facts and acquit because the law or the prosecution itself is unjust.

Here are some previous threads on nullification:

to the OP:

It’s fairly common for there to be witnesses who tell stories that are inconsistent. Jurors do not have to credit the testimony of witnesses they do not believe.

Side B is correct. The last time I was a juror, we had witnesses that contradicted each other. We had to determine who was telling the truth, and who was lying through their teeth*.
We also had to determine intent so we could render a decision on Murder 1 or Murder 2. Murder 1 requires premeditation, Murder 2 does not.
*Comment made in jury room about one particular witness “Did anybody believe a word that guy said?”

One other point, on “intent”: For most if not all crimes, one required element is what’s referred to as a mens rea, if I have the term correct – an intent to commit what is arguably a criminal act. If you do something, knowing the relevant law and believing yourself to be completely within the law, and by some peculiar coincidence it turns out to have been illegal, in general it cannot be successfully prosecuted. I’ve been trying to come up with an example from “normal” crmes but can’t do so. But, for example, you sell something you have every good reason to believe is your property, and it turns out later not to have been, you cannot be charged with fraud in selling it.

Under California law, this is correct. The jury is also the “fact-finder”: they determine what the facts are, after sorting through the evidence.

There are a number of relevant jury instructions on this point. For example, from CACI, the California pattern jury instructions (which are massive; the link goes to a front page that you must click through to get to the actual instructions), instruction 107:

So the pattern jury instruction in California tells the jury, even before any evidence is heard, that they are to evaluate the credibility of the evidence as it comes in.

Because nullification is illegal (i.e., it is not a power that a juror legally may exercise), an attorney arguing for nullification is subject to sanctions, and may have caused a mistrial depending on what he actually said.

Polycarp, I think you’re stumbling over the “mistake of fact” versus “mistake of law” confusion. It’s been ten or more years since I studied it, so I will happily defer to dopers with more knowledge on this point. Mistake of law – i.e., genuinely believing that one’s acts do not violate the law – is not a defense. See, e.g., the FLDS members who claimed not to know that it was a violation of the law to have sex with a 13 year old girl. But mistake of fact – i.e., getting your facts wrong – can sometimes exculpate if the set of facts as you believe them are such that you didn’t form the right mental state to commit the crime.

But I defer to dopers that have a better memory for this stuff.

But there can be a mixture of mistake of law/fact, which is what I think Polycarp is saying. Suppose you buy something from a friend. Then one day the cops come knocking on your door because it turns out your friend stole it and fenced it to you. They want to charge you with possession of stolen property?

What’s your defence: mistake of law, or mistake of fact? you thought you had clear title to it, because you bought it and paid good money for it. But that is a legal concept, of having acquired title to property by a contract.

In this case, you’re not relying on a defence of ignorance of the law; you presumably know that it’s illegal to possess stolen property. Your defence is the application of the law to the set of facts.

This sort of situation is covered by the idea of “colour of right” - you thought you had a legal right to something, but were mistaken.

This is close, but mens rea does not = “intent.” Intent is one example of mens rea which actually means “the mental state required to punish.”

Not every crime requires intent (more correctly called “purpose”) - when you do the punishable action (actus rea) with the required mental state, then you have committed the crime. For example, if the crime is reckless disregard of human life while operating a motor vehicle, you have actus rea “driving too fast” + mens rea “reckless” (understood there was a possibility of danger to others and did it anyway) = crime charged.

Thus, some crimes are punishable without any purpose to break the law – “mistake of fact” and “mistake of law” a red herrings to some extent - in the words of my Criminal Law Professor “focus on what the state needs to prove and you won’t be confused.”

Mistake of fact; you thought you bought something that wasn’t stolen. So you lack the mens rea for theft or fraud, hence mistake of fact can exculpate whereas mistake of law doesn’t.

Wise words.

I think you implied that you were limiting this claim to the law of California, but I wanted to make clear that this is not true in all jurisdictions. It is a hard line to draw between explicitly arguing for jury nullification and making arguments with the sole purpose of jury nullification, and the latter is definitely not universally prohibited. In the recent jury nullification thread there are some cites to this effect.