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Should Accused Felons Get To Choose A Judge Or Jury Trial? You Decide

Prison cell
DOliphant via Flickr

This November voters in North Carolina will decide whether people accused of felonies should have the opportunity to decide whether they want a judge or jury to decide their case. Jeff Welty, an associate professor in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, has been studying the potential implications this constitutional amendment may have on the state.  He talked with Phoebe Judge.

Conversation highlights:

Why has it taken North Carolina so long to address the issue?

Our appellate courts have interpreted the state constitution as requiring a jury trial, foreclosing the possibility of a trial before a judge. Thus we need a constitutional amendment to make this happen.

Would this apply to all felony cases?

It would not apply to capital cases (those involving the death penalty), but it would apply to all other cases.

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Government have come out with a study looking at potential implications.Those in favor of the amendment cite two main reasons:

  1. Bench trials can be quicker.
  2. Defendants with a long criminal record might not "get a fair shake" before a jury.

Those opposed to the amendment cite these reasons:

  1. If it becomes possible for a defendant to waive their right to a jury trial, they might be pressured to do so. (Prosecutors, in a quest to move cases may overly encourage defendants to waive that right.)
  2. Some defendants, like those with politically connected lawyers, might get unreasonably favorable treatment from a judge. (A federal study found that judges acquitted defendants at three times the rate of a jury trial.)

If the amendment is passed, researchers believe that there may be some slight efficiency gains to the system. They estimate that 15 percent of defendants will end up waiving their right to a jury trial and choose a bench trial instead.

Stories, features and more by WUNC News Staff. Also, features and commentary not by any one reporter.
Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
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