by Chad Higgenbottom
While all of this budget madness has been and will continue to be the primary story coming out of the General Assembly, it is worth nothing that North Carolinians will have a constitutional amendment to vote on this November: Senate bill 399. The specific section of the North Carolina Constitution that is in question is Section 24 of Article I, which reads:
Sec. 24. Right of jury trial in criminal cases.
No person shall be convicted of any crime but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court. The General Assembly may, however, provide for other means of trial for misdemeanors, with the right of appeal for trial de novo.
The amendment would revise this section to read:
No person shall be convicted of any crime but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court, except 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 the court and with the consent of the trial judge, waive jury trial, subject to procedures prescribed by the General Assembly. The General Assembly may, however, provide for other means of trial for misdemeanors, with the right of appeal for trial de novo.
Former Senator Peter S. Brunstetter introduced S.B. 399 last summer, and it passed both the House and the Senate nearly unanimously.
As it stands, the right to waive jury trial for felony cases does not currently exist in North Carolina, except when the defendant pleads guilty. John Rubin, Albert Coates Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, has cited State v. Hudson, 280 N.C. 74 (1971) and State v. Bunch, 196 N.C. App. 438, 440 (2009) as case law to uphold this fact. Rep. Chuck McGrady, whose subcommittee had reviewed the bill, believes that the defendant should have the choice to choose the waiver due to varying circumstances. For example, there may be a complicated case that the defendant does not feel the jury can competently answer to, in contrast to the judge’s well-educated opinion; also, non-jury trials are less expensive. Conversely, attorney Eric Rowell, author of the article linked above, believes that such an amendment could influence overworked attorneys to routinely elect for the waiver, even though it would be poor advice for their clients.
It may only be conclusive to say that the bill has its pros and cons, especially since its necessity is subjective to each individual case. Whatever your opinion may be, the public shall decide the amendment’s fate on November 4th.