Today, jurors are commonly disdained as a panel of "12 of your peers that were too stupid to get out of jury duty". This was not always the case. Historically jury duty was considered a prestigious position. I believe that a lot of the reason for this transition in thought is due to the changing opinion in regards to jury nullification.
Modern jurors are largely considered fact finders. Examine the evidence and determine guilt or innocence within the confines of the law and the courts instruction. Most of the time, this is busy work. Something you could do with your eyes closed, and many jurors do. However this is only a small part in the overall scope of the jurors role, which is, simply put, to reach a just verdict. In addition to determining if the law was broken, the jury is to determine if -- and, pay attention now, this part is important -- the law itself and the application of the law is in fact just.
Let me give you an example of an unjust law. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law passed, making it illegal for abolitionists to harbor slaves. Northern jurors refused to convict defendants, in spite of clear violation of the law.
Let me give you an example of an unjust application of the law. A friend of mine's mom served on a jury recently. The charge against the woman on trial was assault. She had been out to lunch with the ex-roommate of her daughter, when she noticed that the woman was wearing her daughters missing ring. She accused the woman of stealing the ring and reached for her hand, touching it. The judge advised the jury that the legal definition of assault is, "an unwanted touch." In spite of the fact that the woman had in fact literally delivered an unwanted touch, the jury acquitted her.
Jurors are the last, and therefore most important check in our legislative system. They exist to protect citizens against the unjust, the tyrannical, the nonsensical. Not only is it the responsibility of the jury to find justice in the case that they hear, but by doing so they serve as an essential reminder to our legislative branch that the American people will not permit injustice.
So. Why have you never heard about this before?
Well, you see, it all started during alcohol prohibition. The legislative branch at this time was presented with a problem. Alcohol prohibition was so universally unpopular that nearly every case was met with an acquittal. Knowing that they would be unable to abolish the power of jurors to nullify, they had to think creatively. What they could do, they determined, was to stop telling them about it. Therefore, in a genius move, judges began to charge jurors, "...it is your duty as jurors to follow the law as I shall state it to you . . . You are to be governed solely by the evidence introduced in this trial as the law as stated to you by me."
Thusly, jury nullification fell into obscurity in the general populace. Of the judicial branch that it checked, it had always seemed somewhat troublesome. However, as jury nullification left the status quo, popular opinion among judges changed from an irksome but sage nanny to a harbinger of chaos and lawlessness. While some still recognize the historical significance of jury nullification, few feel it has a role to play in today's system since clearly we have already taken care of all of the unjust laws.
Which brings me to the story of my jury selection, when I was presented with the question of, "Will you follow the law and instructions of the court, as presented to you by the judge, even if you disagree with them?"
"No," I responded, "When it comes to my core values, there are some issues on which I am unwilling to compromise for any reason - including the law."
Having had two other jurors answer "no" to that question in one way or other, the judge replied with chagrin, "I think we are going to have to rephrase that question. What it means is - "
"I assure you," I interrupted, "I understand the meaning of the question. To quote John Adams, 'It is the not only the jurors right, but his duty, to find the verdict based on his own best judgement, understanding and conscience, though it be in direct opposition to the direction of the court.'(*) So you see your honor, I am well aware of my powers of jury nullification, and I feel quite strongly about it."
The judge looked take aback for a moment, then replied, "Yes, I see you do understand the question. You mentioned jury nullification which I was about to explain. For the rest of the jurors, jury nullification is when the jury reaches a verdict based upon something other than the law. This has been useful historically for unjust laws, when we realize after the fact that, okay, maybe slavery wasn't such a good idea after all. However, those are rare cases. Most of the time it is troublesome which is why we try to avoid it today.
"Ms. Ethernight, I understand you have strong feelings about jury nullification and I respect that. But this really isn't one of those cases... the charge is not controversial. So, do you think you can set aside your feelings, and save them for the right kind of case - well, not to say there's a 'right' kind of case for jury nullification, but you see what I mean. Can you set aside your feelings for when it would make more sense?"
"The question is asking if I can promise to follow the courts instructions. If the question is, 'Do you think it likely that you will not encounter any instructions that you disagree strongly with such that you are compelled to disobey," the answer is yes. However, if the question is, "Do you agree to follow the courts instructions, no matter what," I simply can not promise that.
"Ok, thank you Ms. Ethernight." he said. Then he moved on to the next juror, failing to ask the final question asked of all jurors, "Do you think you are able to be a fair and unbiased juror."
The four jurors after me were questioned, then the judge announced, "Now we will move on to council's challenges, but first let me thank and dismiss juror number four, juror number seven, juror number eight and juror number eleven."
I was practically standing up and walking out of the court room when I realized that my number had not, in fact been called. It was with even greater astonishment that after moving to replace the now vacant seat of juror number four, I heard the words, "Ok, it looks like we have our jury. Will you please stand and take the oath."
* This is not the exact quote. I typed it out from memory, and to be honest what I said in the court room was probably a bit more fumbled than that, what with stage fright and all. If you're interested, the exact quote can be found on the jury nullification page on wikipedia, or among a bunch of other great quotes on erowid.