You have a “right” to a jury by your peers or a jury by Judge. If you don’t possess a shiny badge, you’re going to be at a disadvantage if you choose a trial by judge. But if you have a shiny badge, avoiding your ‘peers,’ your non-shiny-badge peers, might be a better route for you.
The recent acquittal of a St Louis Cop accused of killing Jason Stockley drives this point home. He chose a trial by Judge, and he’s not alone. The shiny badges have essentially found a loophole in the magic parchment that allows them to avoid the direct accountability they need to face when they are ’empowered’ to walk our streets with lethal force, able to mete out their interpretation of a justifiable use of deadly force without having to face the community they patrol.
The thin blue line is getting wider and wider all the time, and for those of us on the outside looking in, that line is pushing up against us more and more.
The fact-finder in Stockley’s trial was not a jury of 12 St. Louisans but instead one man employed by the state: Judge Timothy J. Wilson of Missouri’s 22nd Judicial Circuit. That’s because Stockley, over the prosecution’s objection, requested what’s known as a “bench trial.”
Missouri law and the U.S. Constitution permit that result. States vary in how permissive they are in allowing bench trials. Missouri is stricter than some in requiring the trial court’s consent (which Wilson granted in this case). But states are free to be generous. The Sixth Amendment guarantees an “impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” For nearly a century, courts have treated these words as a protection for defendants alone — one they can freely waive.
But there’s reason to think this conception of the jury guarantee — merely an entitlement that defendants can spend as they please — is wrong or at least incomplete. Juries don’t just protect defendants; they give the community a voice in criminal justice. It’s a guarantee of not only an impartial jury but also a jury drawn from the community where the crime took place. Sometimes, to be sure, the community can protect defendants from an overzealous prosecution. But in other cases, a jury drawn from the community might actually protect the community by convicting.
That’s especially true when the defendant is part of the government. Indeed, one of the complaints in the Declaration of Independence was that the crown had sought to immunize British soldiers from murder prosecutions by holding “mock trials” far from the communities where the crimes occurred — that is, in places where juries were less willing to convict.
Yet today, it’s not uncommon for police-officer defendants to bypass juries and opt for bench trials. Three officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in Baltimore were acquitted by a judge, leading the state to drop charges against the remaining defendants and spurring calls for restrictions on jury-trial waivers. Under Maryland law, prosecutors have no power to object to bench trials.