Tim Murphy, a veteran D.C. Superior Court judge who has presided over more jury trials than he can remember, has an idea.
He thinks there should be fewer jury trials.
If Murphy has his way, judges would decide all the misdemeanor and traffic court cases that go to trial. There were 19,200 such cases last year and fewer than 5 percent of the defendants in them asked for a jury trial.
Murphy's idea is that the court system -- and therefore the cash-strapped city government -- can save $1 million a year that is now paid to jurors who sit at the courthouse waiting for trials that do not occur.
"People will say we have a tradition of jury trials in Washington," Murphy said in an interview. "It's something we can be proud of. But I think we have to look at priorities, resources, what the community can afford and what the community wants."
Murphy said he has consulted with U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff, who agrees the idea is worth exploring. He also has talked with D.C. City Council Member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) about legislation that would be needed to institute the reform. Clarke said he likes the idea, but is unsure what the community reaction might be.
However, Murphy's plan has received less than an enthusiastic reaction from some defense attorneys, who last year went on strike against Murphy for his tough attitude toward lawyers who are late arriving for cases before him. Some defense lawyers also earn some of their largest fees in extended jury trials. Murphy said that jury trials last four times as long as bench trials.
More imprtant, some lawyers believe they have a better chance at winning cases with juries than with judges.
"You have to expect with a judge sitting day after day, seeing the same kinds of cases coming through, he is likely to have certain biases," said one defense attorney who practices in Superior Court and declined to be identified. "Juries have a fresh outlook, and look at each defendant as a single individual and not part of the system. That's the way cases are supposed to be judged."
Murphy found that of the almost 14,000 misdemeanor trials last year -- generally on shoplifting, drug and prostitution charges -- only 857 defendants requested jury trials. In almost 5,200 traffic cases last year, such as for drunk driving or driving without a license, only 50 defendants recevied jury trials, or fewer than 1 percent.
Defendants charged with crimes carrying maximum penalties of at least six months are entitled to jury trials under rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the District, defendants may seek jury trials where they face any charge that carries a penalty of at least 91 days in jail.
Under Murphy's proposed law, penalties for misdemeanor crimes, which have penalties of up to one year, would be reduced by law to less than 90 days.
Thus persons charged with misdemeanor crimes would lose their right to jury trials, but, on the other hand, could receive only one-quarter of the potential jail sentence.
"I think the tradeoffs are worth it," Murphy said. "I'm looking at it from the perspective of dwindling resources of the court and city and the better utilization of police, juror, witness and judge time, for what is a cherished but archaic practice in this jurisdiction."
Arthur B. Spitzer, head of the local ACLU chapter, said the plan seemed acceptable to him as long as it is extended only to misdemeanors with reduced penalties. Council Member Clarke wondered whether District residents were ready for such a plan because it would require lowering cirminal penalties at a time of a high crime rate.
Under Murphy's plan, however, prosecutors could ask judges for increased penalties for repeat offenders, and in those cases defendants could request jury trials.
Ruff said Murphy's plan is "something we're seriously considering . . . We are looking at it actively." Ruff said the U.S. attorney's office will decide after further research whether to recommend legislative action to lower the penalties to implement Murphy's plan.