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N.C. voters OK amendment to trial law

Staff and wire reports

Voters have approved a constitutional amendment that gives criminal defendants in North Carolina another option other than a jury trial.

Votes tabulated by The Associated Press showed 53 percent of voters supported the amendment, which allows people charged with a felony to decide if they want a judge or a jury to hear their case.

In Rowan County, 20,787 voted in favor of the amendment and 14,956 against, a margin of 58.2 percent to 41.8 percent.

Under current state law, a criminal defendant in a felony case must have a jury trial. They cannot waive or relinquish that right. But under the amendment, defendants can waive their right to a jury trial. Such a waiver would require the consent of the trial judge and would not be allowed in a death penalty case.

The amendment, sponsored by former state Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, is seen as a way to increase efficiency in state courtrooms.

Before going to the state’s voters, the amendment passed the state House, 104-1, and the Senate, 44-0.

The amendment puts North Carolina in line with 49 other states and the federal criminal justice system.

A study by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government said one benefit of the amendment is that it could save time and money if a significant number of defendants picked a judge rather than a jury to decide their case.

That’s because so-called bench trials tend to be shorter and less expensive than jury trials.

But the report also examined arguments against the proposal, including the fear that defendants could be pressured by busy prosecutors or even judges to waive their right to a jury trial.

Looking at the experience in other jurisdictions that allow defendants to waive a jury trial, researchers found that only a small number — between 5 percent and 30 percent of felony defendants — chose a judge over a jury trial.

If North Carolina were to have a similar experience, any cost savings or efficiency gains from the amendment would be modest.

And the report said that judges are more likely than juries to acquit defendants.

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