NC Voters Approve Defendant Felon’s Right To Waive Jury Trial

in Violent Crimes, on

North Carolina’s constitution will change on Dec. 1, 2014, thanks to a referendum vote on Tuesday. The measure passed by a narrow margin (53 percent), perhaps because the lack of media coverage and some wrangling within the legal community.

The amendment allows a defendant charged with a felony to waive his or her right to a jury trial and to go before a judge in a bench trial instead. There are two important conditions tied to the amendment: The trial judge must approve the waiver, and the waiver is not available to defendants facing the death penalty.

This is a big step for North Carolina and our criminal justice system, but it is not revolutionary. Judges currently hear all misdemeanor cases, and the state was standing alone on the issue — we are the last of the 50 states to adopt the waiver. The waiver is also available in federal cases.

Arguments against the change pointed to the additional power the waiver gives to judges. Opponents said, too, that defendants could be pressured into waiving a jury trial by prosecutors and even judges anxious to clear a crowded docket. The result could be more appeals and more expense to the system.

Proponents focused on judicial economy: Bench trials are cheaper and faster than jury trials. Judges are sometimes better suited to hear highly technical cases as well as particularly gruesome cases. There are also cases involving unpopular or controversial parties — defendants, victims or witnesses — that may be better handled by a judge.

The last, however, goes to another concern raised by opponents. Some of the benefits of a jury trial accrue to the jury. Sitting on a jury is one of the ways that citizens gain exposure to and participate in the criminal justice system.

Source: WNCN, “Voters approve amendment allowing felony defendants to waive jury trial,” Nov. 5, 2014 (updated)