Thursday, June 18, 2009

Trial by Jury Denied: England

I have always thought of England as the home of trial by jury, a principle inherited by the thirteen colonies and enshrined in Article III and the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution.

It therefore came as a great surprise to read in the BBC news that an English judge has ruled that four defendants charged with armed robbery at Heathrow Airport will not receive a trial by jury, but will be tried by a judge.

According to the BBC report, "First Trial Without Jury Approved," a statute which went into effect in 2007 permits a trial without a jury when there is evidence of a "real and present danger that jury tampering would take place," and measures to prevent the tampering would not succeed. The judge ruled that there is a "significant danger" of jury tampering in this case.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant charged with an offense which carries a possible punishment of more than six months in prison, has a constitutional right to trial by jury. This covers all felonies and most misdemeanors. While the Court has addressed such questions as the size of the jury and whether the vote of the jury must be unanimous, I am not aware of any American case holding that the possibility of jury tampering can lead to the forfeiture of the right to trial by jury. The current debate focuses on whether individuals being held in Guantanamo Bay should be tried as criminal defendants before a jury, or some other system of tribunals should be used.

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