November 1, 2014

Medina
Cloudy
41°F

Ohio prosecutors want right to force jury trials

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

COLUMBUS — Ohio prosecutors say they’re not giving up in their efforts to pass a law that would allow them to demand that criminal defendants undergo a trial by jury.

The proposal by the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which was before lawmakers this year and in the past, is aimed at situations where defendants waive their rights to a jury trial and demand a judge hear the case instead.

Occasionally, prosecutors believe a judge will not provide a fair hearing and they want the ability to demand a jury trial, said John Murphy, a lobbyist with the prosecuting attorneys association.

“The only time we run into problem is when this particular judge won’t give us a fair hearing for one reason or another,” Murphy said. “Some judges have particular views on cases we disagree with.”

Several prosecutors testified before House and Senate committees this year in support of the measure, which passed in the House but died in the Senate earlier this month. It would apply only to serious crimes.

“Prosecutors and the victims of crimes should have the same choices as the criminals,” Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.

“In a time when we have finally come to recognize not only the rights of the criminally accused, but also the rights of the victims of their crimes, giving the victims, through the State, some say in the use of a jury at trial seems only fair,” he said.

Prosecutors note that more than two dozen states allow prosecutors to request a jury trial, as does the federal court system.

The Ohio State Bar Association and numerous judges opposed the measure.

They said that while the Ohio Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a jury trial, it doesn’t require it.

They also say prosecutors can already ask that judges with a perceived bias be removed from a trial. And they say the proposal could cost taxpayers because of the added expense of more jury trials.

“Eliminating the right to a bench trial for those who are criminally accused would be contrary to the fair and economic administration of justice,” according to a Dec. 11 letter to the judiciary committee from 34 Cuyahoga County court judges.

Judges also say the proposal makes more sense in the federal court system where judges are appointed for life and it’s harder to remove them from cases for bias.

The proposal would also apply to death penalty cases, where a three-judge panel sometimes is better equipped to handle such complicated cases than a jury, which can be overwhelmed because of the nature of crimes in capital cases, said state public defender Tim Young.

A financial analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission predicted only a “minimal” increase in costs to counties of giving prosecutors the right to demand a trial by jury.

The commission concluded “there will be very few circumstances in which a prosecutor would want to demand a jury trial.”