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The Daily Tar Heel

Experts talk about proposed NC constitutional amendment

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story included a headline that incorrectly stated the roles of the people giving their opinions on the amendment. All three people are local officials who have been involved in the issue. The headline has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

Ellie Kinnaird, former N.C. senator 

Where do you stand on the issue? 

“I’m actually going to vote for it, but not many people know about it. I think that people aren’t just deciding whether it’s good or bad. They’re trying to decide if it’s appropriate for criminals and people accused. The accused have a right to a fair and speedy trial, but this amendment does not apply to capital cases. With a bench trial, if a person has no prior convictions, they will probably get a lesser sentencing.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of allowing defendants to waive a jury trial? 

“A prosecutor will charge several things in any single crime to up the ante, and when the jury sees those things added up, it looks like a vicious crime. A judge is more objective and knows the law very well, whereas juries are more apt to be swayed by the viciousness of the crime. With a jury trial, a defendant might be convicted where a judge might not even convict them.”

Bill Massengale, law partner at Massengale and Ozer 

Where do you stand on the issue? 

“I think it’s a great addition to the judicial system. I think juries are incredibly perceptive. They can see things that lawyers and judges can’t see sometimes, but they don’t understand the law as well as a judge, and I believe that juries can create issues that don’t exist in cases.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of allowing defendants to waive a jury trial?

“Juries sometimes can get confused and not be as judicial or as careful as a branch judge should be. While the jury tradition is a great one, I really believe, in terms of efficiency and justice, the defendant would be better off with a bench trial than a jury trial. I’m not saying that all judges do a perfect job, but they understand very clearly what the elements of crimes are.”

Jim Woodall, Orange County district attorney

Where do you stand on the issue? 

“I’m opposed to it. There are some cases, especially minor cases, where there should be a bench trial. In most states, the rule is that if the defense and prosecution and judge agree, then you can have the bench trial, and that’s the only way I think you should have a bench trial in superior court in criminal cases. When you have victims of violent crimes, I want a jury from the community hearing that case. I think it’s a real cornerstone of our criminal justice system. I trust juries, and they increase confidence in the courts.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of allowing defendants to waive a jury trial?

“The idea with a jury is that you have people from the community that participate in and have a voice in what happens. There are lots of cases where you need that, and I’m concerned by whatever mechanism that community voice is taken away. The community needs to be involved, and the way to get that through cases in superior court is through the jury.”

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