28 November 2010

The Ugly Side of Jury Nullification: Emmett Till

There are a lot of people out there who think that jury nullification is a panacea. The problem is that jury nullification is an application of the jurors' prejudices. No one thinks about how nullification can allow the dark sides of people to come to the fore and allow evil to triumph. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Emmett Till trial.

In 1955, Emmett Till was a 14 year old Black kid who was visiting relatives in Jackson, Mississippi. He was rude to a married White woman. That night at least two White men broke in while Till was asleep and dragged him off. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant took the youth off and beat him at gunpoint. Then, incensed that Till would not admit they were better than him or recant his statement that he had slept with white women, they shot him dead. They tied a fan to the neck of the body using barbed wire and threw it into a river.

When Milam and Bryant were tried their attorneys trotted out the defense that there was no proof that Emmett Till was dead. Till's mother identified his body and a unique ring which had belonged to Till's father was found on the body. The defense attorneys argued that it was all a plot to help destroy the way of life of Southern white people. The jury took an hour to find the defendants not guilty.

The prejudices involved in the case are pretty clear, but in case none of you are up on your civil rights history here's a letter written to LIFE about the murder and trial:
Maybe the Emmett Till case will convince "smart alecky" Negroes to stay in the North where such things as the attempted assault of Mrs. Bryant are condoned. We do not want them in the South and will not have them even if it means drastic measures.

Mrs. Sarah White, Memphis, Tennessee
And, lest any of you might think there's a chance the defendants didn't do it - they confessed to a reporter after they were found not guilty.


Bill Poser said...

Very good point.

Clay S. Conrad said...

What was the evidence? Just because an acquitted defendant was guilty does NOT mean the jury nullified. There was a police chief, I believe, who testified that the victim was alive and well and living in Chicago. That may have had more to do with the acquittal than nullification.

Very often in these race cases, the DA didn't want a conviction, the judge didn't want a conviction, the police didn't want a conviction, and then they scapegoated the jury for the inevitable outcome.

Yet, in federal civil rights cases tried in the same communities, the results were convictions. Same jury pool -- different judges, prosecutors, and investigators. Plaming this on jury nullification is pure scapegoating.

Ken Lammers said...

Nobody questioned whether it was Emmett Till when they shipped the body back to his mother in Chicago. There was no serious question as to whether the body was Till's. This was not a weak case which the prosecution lost. This was a wink and nod case wherein the defense offered a bogus defense meant to inflame the jury's prejudices. That's the way the nullification game is played. There's always some gossamer thin defense offered with a heaping serving of prejudice.

As for the feds, you are right that they were generally more successful than State prosecutions. There are a number of factors which caused this, However, the primary cause was probably that federal judges wouldn't allow the bogus defenses and prejudicial arguments.

Of course, this touches upon another problem with jury nullification. It is inherently uneven in application.

Anonymous said...

It's hardly a gossamer-thin defense when a police officer goes on the stand and states that the body is not the alleged victims'. Was that perjury? Sure. But it was the evidence the jury heard -- and that is what they are to judge the case by.

The fact remains that the State judges, DAs, and police officers were as likely to be Klan members as not. They got the acquittals they were looking for, and saw to it that the jurors were scapegoated. This served two purposes: it absolved them from any responsibility, and prevented any future investigations into their conduct.

Clay S. Conrad