Sunday, January 8, 2012

Trial selection is on trial

Youngstown Vindicator
January 8, 2012

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, to every person accused of a crime, the right to a trial by jury. That right is also ingrained in Article I of the Ohio Constitution. In fact, Ohio is one of only 21 states that continue to leave the request for a jury trial exclusively in the hands of the defendant. However, not every defendant wants to face a jury.

There are a number of tactical reasons that would require a defendant to request a trial in front of a judge as opposed to a jury. A defendant raising technical legal claims may prefer a learned judge over a group of laymen unfamiliar with the nuances of the law.

A defendant with a lengthy criminal record may prefer a judge who has seen many defendants with checkered pasts as opposed to jurors new to the realities of the criminal justice system.

Unfair bias

At times, a crime is so heinous that a jury may be repulsed by the facts. A defendant may choose to take her chances with a judge and avoid the unfair bias that comes with the appalling circumstances of some crimes.

Finally, some defense attorneys judge shop. If the case is assigned to a judge who has been known to be lenient in certain circumstances, the defense will seek a trial in front of that judge without a jury.

Therein lays the concern, for some, with Ohio’s law. While the law is clear that a defendant is entitled to a trial by jury, there is no corresponding “right” for a defendant to demand a trial in front of a judge. Nearly a half century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no constitutional right to a criminal trial in front of a judge. Yet that is precisely what happens in Ohio. The prosecution has no options once a defendant waives a trial by jury. That may soon change.

The Legislature is considering H.B. 265. The bill seeks to condition the defendant’s ability to waive a jury trial on the consent of the prosecutor and court. Essentially the bill would empower prosecutors to demand a jury trial, thus giving them veto power over a defendant’s attempt to waive the right.

Although the District of Columbia, the federal government and most states have similar laws that limit a defendant’s exclusive right to select the form of trial, this bill is not without its detractors.

Some suggest that H.B. 265 would supersede the authority of the Supreme Court Commission on the Rules of Practice and Procedure. A Judicial Impact Statement prepared by the Ohio Judicial Conference suggested, “Although the General Assembly may desire to express its will that prosecutors also be able to demand a trial by jury, the General Assembly does not have the authority to establish court procedures in conflict with an existing Ohio Rule of Criminal Procedure.”

The Supreme Court Commission overwhelmingly refused to provide prosecutors the right to demand a jury trial over the objection of defendants, finding that to do so would be “patently unfair to defendants.” The position of the Judicial Conference is that the H.B. 265 cannot be implemented because the Ohio Constitution expressly granted the authority to oversee the courts to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ballot-box issue

There may be another way to get this done. In 1998 Pennsylvania voters approved a constitutional amendment. The question presented to the voters was simple: “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to provide that the Commonwealth shall have the same right to a trial by jury in criminal case as does the accused?”

A constitutional amendment may be the only way to provide Ohio prosecutors with the same authority.

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