Nothing To Try

A criminal trial is a platform for the introduction of evidence by the government against an individual who pleads not guilty.  Or so one would think.  Via Grits for Breakfast, this apparently is no longer the case in Texas, where the Texas 5th Court of Appeals held that the prosecution is entitled to a trial even where the defendant has pleaded guilty to all charges against him.  From the Collins County Observer :

“[T]he Court of Criminal Appeals long ago concluded that defendants accused of felony offenses have a constitutional right to trial by jury, but do not have a constitutional protected right to waive trial by jury.” Citing an earlier case opinion that said, ““As a matter of Texas constitutional law, an accused has an absolute right to trial by jury…but neither a historical nor express right to have a felony accusation tried by the court, sitting without a jury can be found.”.

The appeals court then found that, “The trial court abused its discretion when it allowed Blackburn to enter guilty pleas and waive jury trial without the prosecuting attorney’s consent.”

This is a stunning misapprehension of law, even for Texas.  While the notion raised by the prior ruling, that the defendant’s constitutional right to a trial by jury, one expressly stated in the Constitution, compels an equivalent right by the government to demand a jury trial where the defendant has chosen to waive it, is controversial, the decision raises the ante to a level that wholly disconnects the concept from reality. 

The defendant, Robert Lee Blackburn, was charged with four felonies after biting a police officer while being arrested for possession of cocaine.  He offered to plead guilty, and after making inquiry, Visiting Judge John McCraw accepted the plea over the objection of Rolater, the Chief of the District Attorney’s Appellate Division.  Rolater accused Judge McCraw of conducting a bench trial.

The Judge responded saying, “Sir, I’m not conducting a bench trial. I’m accepting his constitutional right to enter a plea before the Court. I would submit the United States Constitution allows a defendant the right to enter a plea based on the Court’s request and to avoid needless four jury trials and have at least a couple of hundred county citizens come forward [as potential jurors, (ed.)] and waive their right to make any type of living that day and costing the county some $5,000 per trial. I don’t understand why the State is refusing to allow the defendant… to enter a plea of guilty.”

By pleading guilty to the charges against him, a defendant does not waive a jury trial, but ends the controversy.  That there is no need for any trial, including a jury trial, is a by-product of there being no controversy to try.  Trials resolve issues of fact.  Once a defendant pleads guilty, there is no issue of fact to resolve.  No issue, no trial.  It’s not a hard concept.

The Texas decision confuses the rights afforded an individual with the authority granted the state, an unfortunately common conceptual error committed by courts that are blinded by a desire to achieve an outcome.  While the defendant has the right to plead not guilty, and thereby place the burden on the state to prove his guilt, the state has no equivalent right to reject a plea to the charge and thereby for the defendant to go to trial.  The idea is absurd.  The state has no right to anything. 

Notably, this case doesn’t involve a plea bargain, but rather a plea to the charge(s).  What that means, for non-criminal defense lawyers, is that the defendant has chosen to plead guilty to the charges levied against him, without any reduction in grade, reduction in number of charges, or agreement as to sentence.  The defendant is fully exposed to whatever sentence the law allows.  He has, in a sense, given up completely.  Whether it’s a good move isn’t the point. It’s the defendant’s choice, and he has chosen to give up.

To my knowledge, this is the first instance of a court telling a defendant that he has no right to end the controversy and plead guilty to the charges, dismissing the defendant’s right to do so in favor of the prosecution’s “right” to a jury trial.  According to Bill Baumbach at the  Collins County Observer, a possible motive behind the prosecution’s shenanigans was judge-shopping, with the locals discontent with the defendant being sentenced by the visiting judge. 

The problem isn’t that the prosecution wasn’t happy with how things transpired, although one might hope that the prosecution’s zeal would be slightly inhibited by the limitations imposed by the Constitution.  The problem is that an appellate court approved.

A minor setback for the Constitution and reason?  Perhaps, but if you’re looking for comfort and a good, well-reasoned reversal from the Court of Criminal Appeals, home to Sharon “Killer” Keller, you may be disappointed. 

9 thoughts on “Nothing To Try

  1. Libertarian Advocate

    Just GREAT! This of course necessarily happened at a moment when Texas was beginning to look ever more attractive to me as a place to live, snow no longer being my “thang”.

  2. Dan

    Truly strange stuff. Shouldn’t be too hard for a defense lawyer or somebody to spin this into the DA wants to waste your tax dollars, he must be stopped!

  3. Pam from Plano

    Texas has a statute stating that a defendant cannot waive a jury without the approval and consent of the Court and the prosecutor. Tex. Code of Criminal Procedure 1.13
    It is not unique in making this a requirement. Multiple jurisdictions have similar statutes and the Federal courts have Rule 23(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
    That being said, in Collin County the elected District Attorney has elevated the abuse of this provision to new heights. It is used as a weapon against whatever judge he is angry with at the moment or one he does not trust to appropriately punish a defendant.
    Over the years Collin County jury panels have earned a reputation for being predominately white and ultra conservative in both politics and religion. That is changing now, but it is a slow process. This was a calculated attempt to spotlight this office policy and bring some media coverage to the issue. Most people do not realize how much this “policy” costs the taxpayers and contributes to case backlog.
    Of course he is not running for reelection.

  4. SHG

    The point isn’t about jury trials versus non-jury, but about denying a defendant the ability to plea to the charge and forcing a trial at all.  The courts rationale was that allowing the defendant to plea denied the state a jury trial. It’s a variation of the theme, but an entirely different right.

    As for statutory rules, that’s a different matter. Legislative bodies can create rules that give government procedural authority that it would not have otherwise, and they often do.  The point here is whether it’s constitutionally derived or statutorily derived.  If statutorily, then it’s limited to the text of the statute.  A rule that provides the prosecution with the right to demand a jury trial bears no rational connection with forcing the defendant to endure a trial at all.

  5. Jim Keech

    From reading Bennett’s blog, it seems that Texas juries also (at least in some cases) determine the sentence as well as deciding guilt or innocence. Perhaps this is what they’re hanging their hat on? Though it seems that a bifurcated proceeding would be sufficient.

  6. Lee

    Every now and then I can still be shocked by the stupidity of people who have managed to become judges. If this were indeed a bench trial, the judge could acquit the defendant of charges, thus the rule that a DA must consent to a bench trial or a court can essentially blue the separation of powers when he disagrees with a prosecutors charging decision. But this was a PLEA!

    The offered possible rationale doesn’t even really seem to make sense unless this was a judge there for only 1 day or so.

  7. Casey O'Brien

    In Texas, since juries assess punishment at the election of the defendant or the State in felony offenses, the State must join in a jury waiver. This doesn’t have anything to do with the ability of the defendant to plead guilty. If a jury is empanneled just to hear punishment, then the defendant pleads again in front of the jury and a “stipulation”, admitting to the allegations contained in the indictment is admitted before the jury. The State still has the right to present the evidence of the facts of the crime because it bears on the sentence.

    Obviously in most Texas jurisdictions, this is not an everyday occurance, but does happen with regularity, and most often in courts where the judge is far more lenient than jurors. It certainly can be abused, but normally isn’t.

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