Contact Us 301-705-5137

Can You Waive Your Right to a Jury in a Criminal Trial?

Most of us associate a criminal trial with the jury. This goes back to the founding of the United States, when the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right of the accused in all criminal prosecutions to a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” In Maryland, this means if you are accused of any criminal offense, you have the right to have your guilt or innocence determined unanimously by a panel of 12 individuals who reside in the same county where the court sits, selected at random from the local voter registration and motor vehicle rolls.

As with all constitutional rights, you are not required to exercise them. In fact, you can waive your right to a jury and instead opt for a “bench trial.” This means that a Circuit Court judge will decide your guilt or innocence. Note that only you can waive the right to a jury trial–the prosecution has no choice in the matter.

Maryland court rules require a trial judge to question a defendant on the record in open court before accepting any waiver of a right to trial by jury. The judge must first inform the defendant of what they are giving up if they waive a jury trial. The judge then must ask questions to ascertain whether the defendant’s decision was made of their own free will and not in response to threats, coercion, or the promise of anything in exchange for the waiver. The court must also ensure the defendant is of sound mind when waiving their right to a jury trial–that is, they are not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.

Court of Special Appeals Throws Out Bench Trial Convictions After Prosecutors Concede Sixth Amendment Violations

To demonstrate how seriously courts take these rules, consider this recent unreported decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Jones v. State. This case involved two co-defendants tried on a number of drug and weapons charges. As relevant here, just before the trial began, the judge questioned both defendants on their apparent decision to proceed with a bench trial in lieu of a jury. The judge established that both defendants were not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and were not acting under threat or coercion. But the judge did not go into detail as to what it meant for the defendants to waive their right to a jury. Instead, the court accepted the waivers and proceeded to hold a bench trial, after which the judge convicted both defendants.

On appeal, even the prosecution conceded the trial judge failed to provide even “some knowledge” of what the defendants were giving up when their right to a jury trial. That is to say, one defendant received no such information from the court of any kind. And the other defendant was only told he had the right to “pick 12 individuals from the motor and voter rolls from Baltimore City.” On this record, the Court of Special Appeals agreed with the prosecution and the defense that there was never a “knowing waiver” of either defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. The appellate court therefore threw out the guilty verdicts and ordered a new trial.

Contact Southern Maryland Criminal Defense Lawyer Robert Castro Today

This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.