Give defendant choice of judge or jury trial

The federal court system and 49 states allow defendants the option to be tried by a judge rather than a jury. North Carolina does not. That should change.

The N.C. General Assembly overwhelmingly moved the state in that direction this summer when it voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow a criminal defendant to waive his or her right to a trial by jury. The amendment would not apply to capital cases where prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The change makes sense on a very basic level: It saves the courts time by reducing trial backlogs and money by reducing the number of jury trials. A bigger benefit, advocates say, is that complex cases with a lot of technical data can be left to the expertise of a judge. Think white collar crimes.

Opponents of the change worry that defendants’ attorneys might engage in shopping for friendly judges. Others worry that defendants feel pressured by the state into the less-expensive (for the state) option of a trial by judge. Defendants also might mistakenly conclude that they’ll get more lenient treatment if they make things easier on prosecutors and the judge by skipping a jury.

Those issues haven’t amounted to a significant problem in the other 49 states, however, so the worry that a defendant might occasionally find a friendly judge shouldn’t outweigh the fact that a judge might regularly be a better choice for legitimate reasons. Defendants should get that choice. We recommend voting yes on the amendment.