Criminal defendants in most North Carolina felony cases should soon be able to waive their right to a jury trial and ask for a judge to determine their guilt or innocence.
With more than 85 percent of the state’s precincts reporting Tuesday, those voting in favor of a constitutional amendment to allow such a waiver held a majority, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Even with the amendment, any case that could result in the death penalty would still have to be heard by a jury.
Misdemeanor cases are heard by District Court judges rather than juries, though the results in those cases can be appealed to Superior Court and then heard by juries.
Sometimes defendants think it’s to their advantage to have a judge rather than a jury because the charges involve unusually technical evidence or because the nature of the crime, such as a sex offense, is inflammatory. A judge, they reason, might be less likely to be swayed by emotion.
Supporters of the measure said it would save the court system time and money, though a report by the UNC School of Government in August found that only between 5 percent and 30 percent of defendants who go to trial choose a judge over a jury in other states.
Critics said these so-called bench trials would lead to defendants “shopping” for judges who are thought to be more likely to yield a particular verdict. They contended that the change would take more power from citizens and give it to judges, increasing the risk that they might favor some defendants based on who their attorneys are.
There also were concerns that some defendants might be more likely to be pressured by judges or prosecutors into seeking bench trials.
Some other states require that the prosecutor consent to a bench trial, some that the judge consent and others that require both. North Carolina’s amendment requires only that judges agree.