When Can a Defendant Waive Their Right to a Jury Trial?
Most of us know that there is a fundamental right to a jury trial. However, there is also a right to waive a jury trial. The case of Commonwealth v. Gebo is pending before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and involves a defendant who wanted to waive her right to a jury on the day of trial.
In April of 2017, Homer Gebo was watching the news and drinking coffee in his home. His wife, the defendant, went into the kitchen. A fight ensued between them, and the defendant picked up a plastic chair and hit Mr. Gebo’s arm. Mr. Gebo grabbed the chair and threw it. The defendant then hit Mr. Gebo in the head with a ladle. He passed out for 10-12 seconds and then awoke. Confused, Mr. Gebo asked what had happened and why the defendant hit him. She told him that he had a heart attack.
Mr. Gebo had to go to the hospital to treat his injuries. He had an abrasion on his wrist that required stitches, and his head needed staples. Mr, Gebo initially did not want to file a police report but then decided to report the incident months later in mid-August because the defendant had gotten “fresh” with him and had been disrespectful during their 50-year marriage.
The defendant claims that she never hit Mr. Gebo but used the chair to block herself and that Mr. Gebo passed out.
The defendant filed for divorce shortly after.
On the day of the trial, the defendant requested a waiver of a jury trial. The judge asked the defendant what the basis for the waiver was. The defendant explained that she believed this case would be resolved prior to trial and that she would rather have a bench trial. The judge response that in Massachusetts, there has to be good cause to waive a jury trial once the defendant has elected to have a jury trial, and the judge denied the motion, alluding to the fact that the defendant may be “judge shopping.”
A jury trial is a fundamental right in this country. A defendant also has the right to waive a jury trial at any time before the jury has been empanelled. A court may refuse to accept a waiver, but such refusal must be for good and sufficient reason.
Prior to the day of trial, the defendant indicated that she wanted a jury trial. However, she properly requested a jury-waived trial and filed the proper motion on the day of trial. Her request was timely and was made as soon as the court was called into session. The defendant now argues that the trial judge abused his discretion. The defendant argues that instead of following this rule, the trial judge shifted the burden to Gebo to produce good cause for the waiver. However, according to the law, the burden is on the court to find good cause, not the defendant.
The judge’s suggestion that the defendant was judge shopping is not good cause. Additionally, there is no evidence that a waiver would have resulted in the case being transferred to a different judge.
The decision to waive the right to a trial before a jury is primarily a decision of trial strategy and is one that belongs to the defendant.
Gebo was charged with one count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, in this case, a blunt object, on a person over 60 years also, and one count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a chair, on a person over 60 years old and one count of violation of an abuse prevention order.
Because the defendant was not permitted to waive a jury trial, the defendant is now arguing that a reversal is necessary. Time will tell if the Supreme Judicial Court will hear this case next session.
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