Last month, the State’s Attorney proposed a new rule that could have serious repercussions for defendants in Maryland criminal cases.

In late October, Maryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby proposed a measure to reform the ability for judges to solely hear criminal cases. Under current Maryland law, the defendant in a criminal case can waive their right to a jury trial and instead request a bench trial. Those who oppose the measure express their concern that it could limit the defendants’ constitutional right to a fair trial.

Per the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to a lawyer and an impartial jury. It is not stated outright that defendants are afforded the right to waive their jury trial in favor of a trial by judge, but critics of Mosby’s proposed measure feel that it limits defendants’ rights just the same.

The case that brought this issue into question involved three women, who were accused of attempting to rob an elderly patient for whom they had been providing care. The prosecution described the women as criminals with no regard for their patient’s safety or health, a portrait that could have moved a jury to convict them of a crime. According to the defendants’ attorney Mary Lloyd, Mosby’s restrictions on a bench trial could have proved detrimental to her clients, as she would not have been able to request a bench trial on their behalf.

Juries, according to Lloyd, are often influenced by emotional arguments and descriptions of criminal behavior. Because they lack the courtroom experience of a judge, they may be unable to see through a convincing argument. Judges, on the other hand, are experienced in hearing arguments from both defense and prosecution, and are able to more objectively evaluate the legal factors of the cases, as a result.

The three women accused were previously unfamiliar with the Maryland court system, and had no knowledge of their ability to request a bench trial. Their attorney counseled them to agree to the request, a choice that ended up serving them well – the judge who heard their case made the decision to dismiss it. If Mosby’s proposed measure takes effect, future defendants may encounter difficulty requesting a bench trial, or may be restricted from waiving the option of a trial by jury.

According to Mosby, because the Sixth Amendment does not directly state that defendants are afforded the right to a trial by judge, she has the authority to impose restrictions on that option. At the Federal level, the prosecuting attorney and the judge can jointly reject the defendant’s request for a bench trial. Mosby’s rule would align Maryland courts more closely with those on the Federal level.

It is important to understand, however, that in other states, such as Pennsylvania, or in Federal Courts, the law favors removal of cases to other jurisdictions.  In Pennsylvania, for example, almost all high profile cases are moved to a different county from where the crime occurred.  Federal Courts regularly remove cases to avoid local jury bias.  Other changes in Maryland law would have to take place to effectuate Mosby’s proposed change

For more information on Maryland criminal law, contact the ENLawyers today.