Tuesday, August 01, 2006

So Much for the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America states:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

And yet, in the State of Washington, juveniles charged with criminal offenses have no right to a jury trial. Instead, their cases are decided solely by judges or court commissioners. This is true whether the juvenile is charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, and applies even in cases where the juvenile faces incarceration in a juvenile facility until the age of 21. The argument against jury trials in juvenile cases is that these are civil proceedings, not criminal prosecution. But, that is ludicrous on its face. Juveniles are arrested, detained, and charged with offenses that arise under the criminal code. Conviction of these charges can result in incarceration, probation, and fines. Some of these convictions can be used later as "strike" offenses for purposes of Washington's "three strikes" law. These proceedings are civil in name only.

In Texas, all juveniles are entitled to a trial by jury. Not so here in Washington, and it bugs the hell out of me. You may wonder what the difference is between having your case tried by a judge or a jury. Honestly, they truly are worlds apart. For starters, a jury trial means that the State must convince six or twelve people beyond a reasonable doubt, instead of just one. In addition, a jury trial forces the triers of fact to actually deliberate--to talk over the evidence, to work through it. In a trial before a judge, if the judge deliberates at all, it is merely in his own mind. Another major difference is that, in a jury trial, the jury hears only the admissible evidence. Things like unreliable hearsay, confessions obtained in violation of the law, the accused's prior criminal history, and witness statements made to the police but never made under oath in court are kept completely out of the jury's decisionmaking process. In a bench trial, the judge has likely read the entire probable cause statement, knows the accused's criminal history, knows whether the accused has had any violations of his or her pre-trial release, and knows about any illegally seized evidence or confessions that have been deemed inadmissible. It's hard enough to get a jury to disregard a brief reference to inadmissible evidence. How is a judge expected to completely cut out of her deliberations this inadmissible information? Finally, there is something special about a jury that the Framers understood--something that simply cannot be fulfilled by a judge. A jury represents the community judgment. A jury is the power of the people standing between the great power of the state and their ability to take away the liberty of a citizen accused. As intelligent, responsible, conscientious, and well-meaning a judge might be, he can never play that role. That is what jurors are for. It is something that the people of Texas valued and understood when they enshrined the right to trial by jury in their Constitution, and it is something I would like to see the State of Washington recognize.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the genesis of the decision by Washington to use judges instead of juries in these situations. What are the basic arguments on the other side of this issue?

8/03/2006 1:11 PM  

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