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Constitution offers options for trials

How can someone be convicted of murder by a judge? Doesn’t the constitution guarantee the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers?

By Jordan Miles

The Farmville Herald

While the Virginia Constitution allows a defendant the right of being tried by a jury of his peers, it also allows the accused the option of being tried by a judge.

“It’s the defendant’s constitutional right to a jury, but if the defendant chooses not to have a jury, that’s his right or her right,” said Cumberland Commonwealth’s Attorney Pat Scales.

The question came to The Herald in late April, shortly after a circuit court judge convicted a 42-year-old Buckingham County man of capital murder of multiple persons and two counts of murder in the first degree.

Gregory Anthony Taylor was found guilty in the shooting and stabbing deaths of 65-year-old Radford Thomas Ranson and 51-year-old Kenneth Dean Beasley, both of Dillwyn. The two were found dead on Nov. 23, 2014.

Scales said that defendants may exercise the option “primarily because sometimes they are not sure what 12 people will do. Sometimes they feel more comfortable just having the one judge there that they feel they want to hear their case. Sometimes it’s based upon sentencing issues. Those are the primary reasons.”

A defendant takes a risk by having a jury decide his fate, if found guilty. Juries have no sentencing guidelines while judges do for certain crimes.

“Now, the commonwealth can also choose a jury trial. It’s not entirely up to the defendant,” she said. The decision depends on the nature of the case, Scales said, such as its severity or seriousness.

Jury trials cost much more than bench trials, she said.

“The defendant has the right to waive rights under the U.S. Constitution, including trial by jury,” said Buckingham Commonwealth’s Attorney E.M. Wright Jr.

“In Virginia, there is an absolute right to have a trial by a jury in circuit court,” Prince Edward Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan Clark said. “Any person charged with a crime in circuit court — whether misdemeanor or felony — may exercise this right. In addition, the attorney for the commonwealth or the judge may request a trial by jury. If a person is tried by a jury and found guilty of a crime, then the jury decides the punishment it feels is appropriate.”

A person charged with a crime may also waive his right to a trial by jury, she said. “If this waiver is invoked (and neither the commonwealth or the court requests a jury trial), then the judge will conduct a bench trial and will determine the person’s guilt or innocence. If there is a bench trial, and the judge finds the person guilty of a crime, then the judge will impose the sentence he/she feels appropriate.”

According to Clark, there is no right to a jury trial in general district court or juvenile and domestic relations district court. “If a person is tried by a judge and convicted in either of these courts, he/she has the right to appeal the conviction to circuit court for a completely new trial. Once in circuit court, the person charged with the crime(s) may invoke his/her right to have a trial by jury.”

Clark prefaced her comments stating that they were not representative of her office offering legal advice.

“In criminal cases, the accused may plead guilty,” reads the Virginia Constitution. “If the accused plead not guilty, he may, with his consent and the concurrence of the commonwealth’s attorney and of the court entered of record, be tried by a smaller number of jurors, or waive a jury. In case of such waiver or plea of guilty, the court shall try the case.”

“That in criminal prosecutions a man hath a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, and to call for evidence in his favor, and he shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty,” the constitution reads. “He shall not be deprived of life or liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers, nor be compelled in any criminal proceeding to give evidence against himself, nor be put twice in jeopardy for the same offense.”

“In criminal prosecutions, the accused is entitled to a trial by jury only on a plea of not guilty,” documents on the state’s court system read. “On a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the case is heard and determined by the judge. An accused who pleads not guilty may, with the consent of the court and the commonwealth’s attorney, waive the right to a jury trial and have the case decided by the judge.”