Posted: December 3rd, 2014 | By: Jesse Campbell
Defendants in criminal cases could see shorter trial times with the passing of a new law in North Carolina that allows accused individuals to waive a jury trial, but opponents say it could come with a heavy price to a system of checks and balances.
Alleged perpetrators of crimes now have the option to instead have a judge ultimately decide their fate and not a group of their peers.
The law went into effect Monday, but will not apply to death penalty cases where a death qualified jury — one that is willing to impose the death penalty if guilt is rendered — and a complete exercising of due process is necessary in determining if a convicted person should live or die.
The option of a jury waiver could present an advantageous scenario to the accused.
“Some research has shown that bench trials are more advantageous because judges are more neutral, less emotional (than a jury) and understand the law on the burden of proof prosecutors must prove,” said Marian Williams, a professor of constitutional law at Appalachian State University. “Juries, however, may base more of their decisions on emotions and sympathy.”
A bench trial would follow the same format of a jury trial with the presentation of evidence and examination of witnesses. Bench trials, however, would not see the delays or continuances that come with the filing of motions by attorneys.
Although it is impossible to know how many accused persons will waive the right to a jury trial, the passing of the waiver option could ease the pangs of gridlock the criminal justice system is feeling with an overload of misdemeanor cases.
“This will open up the system to even more plea agreements that what there already where,” Williams said. “Plea bargains are a necessary evil. We don’t have the time or resources or power to take every case to trial. The court system would be crippled.”
Williams estimates that up 95 percent of cases that reach the courtroom end in some type of plea arrangement because defendants typically find the removal of jail time from the table or shorter sentences too tempting to pass up.
Shorter trial times and more plea deals could also benefit those who can’t afford bail and lessen the strain on the nation’s penal system.
“The prison system is overcrowded,” Williams said. “We have people languishing in jail because they can’t afford bail. They could be there (in jail) for months and have their case dismissed.”
Additional pleas ultimately mean that fewer offenders will see time behind bars and could save taxpayer money.
“The courts need to spend resources on more important cases like felonies, which are infrequent compared to lower level misdemeanors,” Williams said.
While North Carolina is the last state in the nation to guarantee such a waiver, the frequency of its usage in misdemeanor cases compared to felony ones will remain unknown for some time.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that not all (cases) are entitled to a jury trial, like with petty offenses,” Williams said. “From right off the bat, even though there are four places in the Constitution where it guarantees a jury trial. The Supreme Court has limited it. It should be no surprise that states offer plea agreements, because that is the most feasible option.”
Jonathan Cardi, a professor of civil law at Wake Forest University, said he worries that prosecutors could pressure defendants into waiving their right to a jury trial.
“I couldn’t imagine the reasons on why people would waive their right to a jury trial,” Cardi said. “The jury trial in the United States was maintained (in colonial days) because it plays a crucial role as a democratic body as a check and a balance on the tyranny of an official government body.”
Part of the reason for the United State’s steadfast position with jury trials throughout history can be linked to trace the jury’s power to second guess the power of the government, Cardi said.
“Getting rid of the requirement for a jury trial and allowing people to waive it is a dangerous curtailment of the power of the people,” he said.
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