Bench trial amendment could affect criminal defendants’ rights

Right to trial by judge could bring mixed results in criminal cases

North Carolina voters approved a state constitutional amendment during this year's Midterm Elections which will give criminal defendants the right to have a judge rather than a jury hear their case, according to the Greensboro News & Record. North Carolina was the last state to grant defendants the right to choose either a trial by jury or by judge, which is referred to as a bench trial. The amendment has stirred up some controversy and it is as yet unclear whether it will help or hinder defendants' rights when dealing with the criminal justice system.

Bench trial right

Under the previous law, if a defendant charged with a felony entered a plea of not guilty then he was automatically subject to a trial by jury. Following the passing of this latest amendment, however, defendants will have the right to choose either a jury or a bench trial.

The judge presiding over the case will still have to give approval for the trial option chosen by the defendant. Furthermore, the change does not apply to death penalty cases, which are still automatically subject to a jury trial. All 49 other states have already given defendants the right to choose a jury or bench trial.

Legal controversy

Within the legal profession there is plenty of controversy over whether or not the amendment is an improvement for defendants' rights. According to the Duke Chronicle, those who support the change say it could help defendants in highly complex cases where a judge would be in a better position to weigh the evidence than 12 jurors would be. They also claim that jurors may be more susceptible to being swayed by emotion rather than reason during highly sensitive cases.

However, some have criticized the change, saying it could compromise defendants' constitutional rights. For example, they worry that prosecutors could bargain with defendants by threatening to add additional charges if the defendant does not choose the trial option that the prosecutor wants. Additionally, because judges are elected in North Carolina, there is concern that they will feel pressured to rule against a defendant in high-profile cases as a way of ensuring reelection.

Criminal defense

Because this amendment has only just passed, it will take some time to learn how it will impact the rights of defendants in criminal cases. However, the issue does highlight why it is so important for anybody charged with a criminal offense in North Carolina to have qualified legal representation at their side right away.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help clients understand what their rights are when fighting against a criminal charge. With the expertise that comes from experience, attorneys provide the advice that is often necessary when successfully challenging a criminal charge or unduly harsh sentence.