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.
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:
- Bench trials can be quicker.
- Defendants with a long criminal record might not "get a fair shake" before a jury.
Those opposed to the amendment cite these reasons:
- 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.)
- 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.