A new law went into effect in North Carolina at the beginning of the month that allows defendants to waive their right to a trial by jury and instead choose to have their case tried by a judge.
Historically, the state Constitutional has afforded all criminal defendants in felony cases the state the right to a trial by a jury of peers, but voters approved a constitutional amendment last month to change that.
Now, defendants in felony cases — except cases in which the death penalty is being sought — will have the option to have a “bench trial” instead of a jury trial. The decision does, however, require approval from the trial court judge.
The amendment was also approved by lawmakers last year in the state’s General Assembly, nearly unanimously.
The only vote against the amendment came from a lawmaker who disagreed with the purpose of the law change, which he said was to more quickly address the state’s significant backlog of cases in a more cost-effective manner as bench trials are less expensive than jury trials.
Other critics of the law change argued that it places decision-making power in one person, the judge, instead of a 12-person jury.
Currently, criminal defendants facing misdemeanor charges in North Carolina already have the ability to request a bench trial instead of a jury trial. North Carolina was the last remaining state to require all felony cases to be tried before a jury.
Deciding whether to go forward with a bench trial or a jury trial is a very important decision to make, especially in felony cases. It is something that should be discussed thoroughly with an experienced defense lawyer who can point out the potential advantages or disadvantages of each type of trial.