A House bill that would require juries in criminal trials to determine both law and fact sparked heated debate in a House Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday, but the committee did not act on the bill because of time constraints.

J. Reese Hunter, R-Salt Lake, sponsor of HB171, said the bill would enable jurors to exercise rights they now possess but are not told about. The bill would require judges in criminal trials to instruct juries that they may judge the merits of the law applied to a particular criminal case and the "wisdom of applying that law to the defendant. Accordingly, for each charge against the defendant, even if review of the evidence strictly in terms of the law would indicate a guilty verdict, you have the right to find him innocent."The bill is backed by the Fully Informed Jurors Act-Utah, an affiliate of an 18-month-old national jury-rights movement.

"You can help us bring justice back and fairness in the law," said Kaylin Robinson, a para-legal and co-coordinator of FIJA-Utah.

By contrast, prosecutors, attorneys and police officers decried the proposed legislation.

Said Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors: "It would allow defense attorneys to argue acquittal to a jury on the grounds of race, religion, political beliefs or condone vigilantism."

Aside from legal considerations, Boyden cautioned legislators about the financial costs of conducting an increased number of jury trials.

"If we were really gaining some freedom from this, I'd be willing to pay for it. But we're not," Boyden said.