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Jury law presents challenges for prosecutors

Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 5:55 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 25, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A recent change to Virginia State law has more defendants opting for jury trials rather than looking for plea deals, and some courts are struggling to handle the surge.

SB5007 gives accused parties the option to have their sentences decided by the jury that convicted them or the judge.

Defense attorneys say jurors had developed a reputation for handing out tougher punishments.

“They were required, if they convicted, to give a more harsh penalty than a judge would have,” said NBC12 legal analyst, Steve Benjamin.

That’s because juries were required to hand down sentences within state guidelines, but judges have more leeway.

Benjamin says the law change means more defendants will be given a fair shake.

“Everyone understands the fundamental right to a jury trial. Everyone understands wanting to be judged by their peers: 12 regular folks from the community.”

But opponents question whether the change is really fair; Louisa’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Rusty McGuire says requests for jury trials soared 500% since the new law took effect, and the court system can’t handle it.

“We have one sitting judge and we have a finite amount of prosecutors, clerks, and bailiffs,” McGuire said.

He worries the spike in jury trial requests means cases -including very serious ones- are pushed further down the pipeline.

“If you look at what’s happened in the last year during the pandemic, you have the parole board letting out murderers -- some with a really low amount of time on their sentence. We now have a backlog [becuase] of Covid, so people were being granted bond.”

McGuire adds his office has seen more jury trials: about 30 per month, whereas it was usually 1 per month.

But Benjamin says more defendants opting for jury trials is a good thing.

“Until now, they haven’t been able to risk it, because of the unfairness that is built into the jury sentencing procedure that we used to have,” he added.

McGuire says he supports more jury trials, but only if the resources meet the demand.

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