Can You Waive Your Right To A Jury Trial?
Everyone charged with a crime has the right to a trial by jury. This right is considered absolute under the Constitution. In other words, neither the judge nor the prosecutor can unilaterally take away your right to have your case heard by a jury.
Of course, you can waive that right and elect to proceed with a “bench trial,” i.e., a trial where the judge alone decides your guilt or innocence. There are some situations where a defendant may benefit from a bench trial. But a decision to waive a jury trial must be made carefully. Under Texas law, a waiver must “be made in person by the defendant in writing in open court with the consent and approval of the court, and the attorney representing the state.” The waiver itself must be “express, knowing, and intelligent.”
One a defendant makes a valid waiver of their right to a jury trial, they cannot automatically reassert that right. In other words, if you agree to a bench trial, do not assume that you can change your mind later and demand a jury. The judge has the discretion to permit such a withdrawal, but it is not required to do so.
Court of Criminal Appeals Overrules Judge Who Refused to Permit Withdrawal of Jury Trial Waiver
Even then, a judge may abuse that discretion. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) recently confronted such a case. In Sanchez v. State, the defendant faced a serious felony charge. The case was initially scheduled for a jury trial.
The parties appeared before the judge, ostensibly because they had reached a plea agreement. Shortly before the hearing, the defendant purportedly signed a waiver of his right to a jury trial. The judge asked the defendant if this was correct. The defendant replied, “I did sign it but I didn’t know I would lose my right – to have a jury.”
The defendant then said he wanted more time to think about the state’s plea offer. But the prosecutor–and the judge–said the defendant only had until the end of that day to decide. The defendant ultimately declined the plea offer, but the judge held the jury trial waiver was still valid. So the case proceeded to a bench trial, which resulted in a guilty verdict.
The CCA took issue with these events. Specifically, the Court said that based on the defendant’s ambivalent statements at the plea hearing, he had “effectively requested a withdrawal of his jury-trial waiver.” And even assuming the initial waiver was valid, the trial court abused its discretion in declining to permit the withdrawal. The CCA noted the waiver itself was only made in anticipation of a possible plea bargain that the defendant ultimately rejected. So given the case was originally scheduled to proceed as a jury trial, there was no good reason for the judge to have forced a bench trial on the defendant. The CCA therefore reversed the defendant’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
Contact Texas Criminal Defense Attorney Keith B. French Today
You should never feel pressured or coerced into waiving a basic constitutional right in a criminal proceeding. An experienced Pearland criminal defense lawyer can assist you in effectively asserting your rights. Contact Keith B. French Law, PLLC, today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.