Evidence of the punishment a defendant will face if convicted of a crime is categorically inadmissible in American trial courts today. The jury is to be the judge of the facts and nothing more. Jurors are not to concern themselves with the possible consequences a defendant may face if a guilty verdict is returned. But if jurors are being asked to decide an individual’s guilt, why not also allow them to factor the punishment a defendant would face into that equation? And going a step further, should jurors be informed of their power to nullify?
This argument would seemingly have the most traction when discussing mandatory sentences and three strikes laws such as those in California. In these types of matters the judge has no discretion in sentencing. But if jurors were informed of the type of punishment a defendant would face if convicted it might change the question jurors face from being one of whether or not the defendant committed the act to a question of whether the punishment is fair or disproportionate to the crime the defendant committed. It may allow jurors to act, where judges whose hands are tied by mandatory sentencing laws cannot.
In the past decades, only a few trial court judges have allowed jurors to be informed of the consequences of conviction, only to be quickly reversed by appellate courts. One of these judges, writing extensively in the later reversed case of US v. Polizzi, argues that not allowing jurors to be informed of the consequences for conviction inhibits a jury’s historical power of nullification, wherein the jury decides to acquit a defendant even if there is no reasonable doubt he committed a crime.
As argued by the overturned judge in Polizzi, evidence of punishment being submitted to jurors makes the most sense in cases of special circumstance where the average juror may not be even remotely aware of the harsh mandatory sentence a defendant faces if found guilty. The logic is that jurors should be made aware of the true consequences of their actions before deciding to return a guilty verdict in a case where the crime may not necessarily fit the resulting mandatory time.
Regardless, as it sits now, evidence regarding the punishment a defendant faces is inadmissible in the trial courts today.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime of any type, call Minneapolis – St. Paul criminal defense attorney John J. Leunig for a free phone consultation at (952) 540-6800.
United States v. Polizzi, 549 F. Supp. 2d 308 (E.D.N.Y. 2008) vacated and remanded sub nom. United States v. Polouizzi, 564 F.3d 142 (2d Cir. 2009)