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It’s likely that a large proportion of North Carolina’s voters may not know that on the day of the 2014 midterm elections, Nov. 4, there will be an amendment on the ballot. This amendment, if passed, would alter the state constitution regarding the right to a jury trial in non- death penalty felony cases.
Senate Bill 399, entitled Criminal Defendant May Wave Jury Trial, sponsored by Peter Brunstetter was passed in the House overwhelmingly, with only one hold-out vote cast by Michael Speciale. While the legislatively referred amendment may seem to lack fanfare or immediate consequence, there always remains the lingering possible negative consequences of “tinkering” with defendant rights and the judicial system, and of course the constitution.
As constitutional law now reads: “No person shall be convicted of any crime but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court.” (Article I sec 24). The proposed amendment to Section 24 will read on the ballot as:
Constitutional amendment providing that a person accused of any criminal offense for which the State is not seeking a sentence of death in superior court may, in writing or on the record in court and with the consent of the trial judge, waive the person’s right to a trial by jury.
Instead of having a jury trial as mandated in the current form of the constitution, this would allow a defendant to waive his right to a jury trial and opt instead for a bench trial (with judicial allowance) and the case would then go before the NC Superior Court. In other words, from a jury of one’s peers to a single sitting judge.
Consider the careful and thoughtful intent our Founding Fathers had when writing the U.S. Constitution. The foresight into matters such as this is incontrovertibly relevant still today. In the Declaration of Independence, one major grievance was in the deprivation of any right to jury trials in matters dealing with Great Britain, and detainment without trial. This is a right they fought and pledged their sacred honor to gain, and retain.
Fast-forward to our modern system of criminal justice and even our federal system has now adopted the right to waive a jury (in certain cases) to opt for bench trials. On the state level, 49 out of 50 have this option in some form or another (though statutes and limitations on this vary by state) and this leaves North Carolina as the last hold out; why shouldn’t it be something to be proud of? We have maintained over the years that the right to jury trial is the most legitimate form of redress for defendants.
Some drawbacks of this amendment include crimes involving white collar crime, fraud, insurance and securities fraud. Due to potentially direct relationships that some accused defendants in these categories may have with certain judges or prosecutors, it seems as though it could be utilized for convenience.
There are other crimes however, which are far more abhorrent. One case in the national spotlight involved the heir to the DuPont fortune, a father who was accused (and supposedly later admitted) to child molestation of one of his own children (he was accused of molesting two of his own children). But he was granted a bench trial and sentenced to serve time, which was quickly repealed by the judge with the explanation or excuse that he would not “fare well” in prison.
The other side of the coin to the privileged and wealthy is the indigent and low-IQ defendants who already overwhelmingly often admit to crimes they have not committed. If this option (to waive a jury) and opt for a bench trial were to be enacted, these defendants may not get the benefit of a more sympathetic jury who would consider the circumstances and in turn effect a lighter sentence (or even give the jury the option to nullify the case).
Our prisons are already overpopulated with minority youths, many of which are serving lengthy sentences because of possession charges or other non-violent crimes. Many of these defendants plea out, but for the ones who do not, the Founding Fathers had the vision and capacity to understand that a jury of one’s own peers would be best fit to decipher the outcome.
This amendment, in a perfect world, may give defendants a fair option to make their own decision. However, the possibility to persuade or sway defendants in an intended method of justice remains a great risk to liberty. Most voters will not have even heard about this amendment when they go vote, and they may just pick a quick answer, move on and never think twice about it. Voters deserve more information, and more transparency.
A version of this post was originally published on Constitution Angels
Tags: amendment, Ballot, North Carolina, trial by jury
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