Professor Kami Chavis Simmons discusses N.C. constitutional amendment on jury trials

Photo of Wake Forest Law School Professor Kami Chavis

Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Program Kami Chavis

A ballot amendment asks residents to vote for or against changing the state constitution to allow those accused of crimes the right to waive a trial by jury and allow a judge to decide their fate. Jury trials would still be required in all cases with the possibility of a death sentence.

Last year, the General Assembly approved the ballot amendment after then-Sen. Pete Brunstetter of Forsyth County introduced the bill. Brunstetter left the Senate in December to serve as Novant Health’s chief legal officer and general counsel. He could not be reached for comment.

The state constitution currently states that “a person accused of a crime and who is not pleading guilty to that charge cannot be convicted unless a jury decides the person is guilty.”

If the amendment is passed, those waiving their right to a jury trial must state so in court or in writing. A judge would then have to sign-off on the request.

Wake Forest University Law Professor Kami Simmons said that the amendment is important for several reasons.

“It results in greater freedom of choice for accused persons, but could also result in greater efficiency and improved court administration. While many defendants may still choose to have a trial by jury, there are some situations in which defendants may choose to have a bench trial,” she said.

Last week, Simmons was named the director of Wake Law’s new Criminal Justice Program, which, according to the school, will “facilitate critical thinking and scholarly engagement surrounding criminal justice systems in the United States.”

Simmons said defendants in cases with dense information and facts or with unique circumstances may prefer a judge to a jury.

“Sometimes, in cases involving  inflammatory or bizarre facts, a defendant might feel more comfortable that a judge can sort those facts and apply the law,” she said.

Yet, Simmons said that even if the amendment does pass, she doesn’t see too many defendants taking the option.

“I suspect, however, that most defendants will continue to request jury trials, and this is a right that accused persons (will) continue to have. It is important to note that a judge would still have to approve the request to waive a jury trial,” said Simmons. “Jury trials, primarily because of the jury selection process, require a great deal of time and resources that may not be necessary in bench trials.”

Local lawyer Frederick Adams, former president of the Winston-Salem Bar Association, agrees with Simmons and has heard both sides of the argument.

“The reason people say it is a good idea is because of resources: the expense of jury trials and sometimes the time it takes to pick a jury. The flip side to that argument is that if we’re actually going to convict someone, take away their freedom and potentially incarcerate them, I don’t know if resources and time is what our focus should be on,” Adams said. “I think that, as we’ve always said, we would rather see a 1,000 guilty men go free than one innocent person be convicted.”

Adams, who runs his own criminal defense firm, said there are also major concerns with making sure defendants, even though they have attorneys, truly know what they are giving up by waiving their right to a jury trial.

“Defendants waive things all the time. They waive the right to remain silent and to have an attorney represent them. Even when these things are adequately and sufficiently explained, some defendants still don’t fully understand what they’re giving up.”

He said that the topic is one voters should take seriously.

“It’s a right that is important enough to be included in the constitution: the right to have a trial by a jury of your peers. We are talking about twelve people who bring their own individual experiences and perspectives. That can be a great part of the system,” he said.

Read the story on The Chronicle of Winston-Salem.