A Criminal Defendant’s Waiver of the Right to a Trial by Jury

November 16, 2021

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

In criminal cases in New York, a defendant enjoys a right to a trial by jury. This right is protected by both the U.S. Constitution as well as the New York State Constitution. But a defendant can waive this right and have a judge decide his/her guilt. In this week’s blog, we discuss waiver of the right to a trial by jury.


Basics on Jury Waiver

Pursuant to New York’s Criminal Procedure Law, a defendant can waive his/her right to a trial by jury. The court must make sure that the defendant fully understands the right to a trial by jury. The waiver must be in writing and signed by the defendant in open court. Moreover, the record must show that the waiver was knowing, intelligent and voluntary.

If a defendant waives his/her right to a jury trial, the judge will be the trier of fact. This is also called a bench trial. After considering the evidence and the law, the judge will render a verdict.


Case Study on Waiver

In a case decided earlier this month, People v. Black, the Appellate Division considered whether a waiver of the right to a jury trial was made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently.

Mr. Black had been arrested in Brooklyn for shooting and killing his roommate, allegedly over dirty dishes. At the time he waived his right to a jury trial, he was 76 years old. Mr. Black had a recent history of paranoid delusional thinking and possible early dementia. Moreover, he was being treated with anti-psychotic medication. Further, he had been examined by psychiatrists and found unfit to proceed for the two years after following his arrest.

During the colloquy about his decision to waive a jury, the court did not inquire if Mr. Black was compliant with his anti-psychotic medication. Nor did the court as if he was able to understand the proceedings. Indeed, the court failed to ask the defendant a single question relating to the waiver.

The appellate court found that under these circumstances, Mr. Black’s waiver was not knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. As such, his conviction was reversed and a new trial was ordered.


Why Waive a Jury Trial?

The default position is to try a criminal case before a jury. But there are strategic reasons for a defendant choosing to waive the right to a jury.

The number one reason for a bench trial is simply that it will occur more quickly. It is difficult to schedule the time for a jury trial, and it is logistically challenging to pull a large enough pool of potential jurors. A defendant who wants a speedy resolution of his/her case may choose to waive a jury trial.

Where the issue of guilt is more technical – meaning, whether the facts fit the law – it may be better to have a judge decide the issue. It can also be a good choice if a judge has a reputation for ruling a certain way on the key issue in the case. Moreover, it is good to know which judges are known for being fair and impartial. An attorney who knows the reputation of the judges can help a defendant make the right decision.

Other circumstances where a defendant may choose to waive include where the crime is particularly violent or if there are disturbing facts in the case. Additionally, those defendants who for one reason or another may not garner favor from a jury can choose a bench trial. For example, this could be if a defendant has lots of tattoos or is physically imposing.

Finally, for cases that receive media attention, a waiver of the right to a jury trial may be appropriate. It may be difficult to find an impartial group of jurors in a case with pre-trial publicity.