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Criminal Defendants In North Carolina Could Waive Right To Jury Trial

Photo: The old Jackson County Courthouse in Sylva, N.C.
Jimmy Emmerson via Flickr

North Carolina will move one step closer today to allowing people accused of a crime to waive the right to a trial by a jury of peers and instead choose to be tried by a judge.

A proposed constitutional amendment, which is scheduled for a public hearing March 17 in Raleigh, would allow any criminal defendant except for someone facing the possibility of death the right to waive a jury trial.

The proposal passed in the North Carolina General Assembly seemingly unremarkably last year with near-unanimous, bi-partisan support – unlike last year’s highly divisive amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Yet some public defenders have reservations over what they see as the possibility of a judge or a prosecutor pressuring for a bench trial.

“Bringing jurors in and doing jury selection and all of the work that goes into a jury trial takes resources,” said Thom Maher, director of the state Office of Indigent Defense Services. “If the system starts to push defendants to waive that to save money, and right now they can’t, in a sense right now you’re protected from any kind of improper or undue pressure to waive that right.”

Criminal defendants can already opt for a trial decided by a judge in federal courts and in most states across the country. For misdemeanors in North Carolina, defendants already have the right for a trial before a judge.

Greg Hurley, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts, says the option is a benefit to a defendant – and the overall judicial process.

“Most people would agree this is a good thing,” Hurley said. “The defendant still has their constitutional right to a jury trial if they want one, so they're not taking anything away from a defendant.”

The Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission is scheduled to meet to prepare an official explanation of the proposed amendment at 10 a.m. Monday, March 17, at the Hillsborough Street Conference Room of the Old Revenue Building at 2 S. Salisbury Street in Raleigh. The proposal will be before voters in the Nov. 4 general election.

Update: The Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission meeting, originally scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday, March 3, has been rescheduled to 10 a.m. Monday, March 17, given expected inclement weather. This post has been updated to reflect that change.

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