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State's policy in court doesn't violate constitution

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The state's refusal to waive jury trials in one Marion Superior Court doesn't violate the constitutional rights of the mentally ill defendants who appear in that court, ruled the Indiana Court of Appeals. The defendants argued their mental illnesses may stigmatize them in the eyes of a jury so they wanted bench trials instead of jury trials.

In the consolidated interlocutory appeal of Joshua Lewis, Nashelia Avant, and Marilyn Owens v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0808-CR-757, defendants Joshua Lewis, Nashelia Avant, and Marilyn Owens, all of whom had some form of mental illness, challenged the trial court's denial of their petitions to transfer their cases out of Marion Superior Court 8 on the grounds the state's refusal to waive jury trials in that court violated the federal and state constitutions.

Class D felony cases involving defendants with mental health problems or diagnoses are often transferred to Court 8. After a series of bench trials and acquittal of multiple defendants in June 2007, the state refused to waive jury trials for Class D felony cases in Court 8.

Lewis and the others argued the state's refusal to waive jury trials compromises defense counsel's effectiveness by preventing them from making a meaningful strategic decision regarding whether to pursue a jury or bench trial. They contended they are left with a similar "hard choice" as in U.S. v. Lewis, 638 F. Supp. 573, 578 (W.D. Mich. 1986). The appellate judges disagreed, finding the defendants' right to a bench trial isn't analogous to the Lewis defendants' right to religious freedom, wrote Judge Cale Bradford. As such, there was no violation of their Sixth Amendment rights.

The Court of Appeals also didn't agree with the argument that their mental illnesses and the social stigmas that go along with them would infect a jury pool, making a bench trial necessary. The defendants claimed their mental illnesses are a reason to allow them bench trials, like the reasons mentioned in Singer v. United States, 380 U.S. 24, 36 (1965). The U.S. Supreme Court in that case didn't decide when a circumstance may arise that would make it unlikely for an impartial trial by jury because the petitioner gave no reason for wanting to forgo the jury trial other than to save time.

"But without evidence demonstrating otherwise, we cannot assume that negative public perceptions of mental illness necessarily place a mentally-ill defendant at risk or compromise his right to a fair trial when members of the public stand in his judgment," Judge Bradford wrote. "Negative public scrutiny and social ostracism, while no doubt disadvantageous in the social context, are just as likely - and perhaps more likely - to arouse compassion for a criminal defendant."

The Court of Appeals also found the state's policy of refusing to waive jury trials for mentally ill defendants in Court 8 doesn't violate their rights under the Equal Protection Clause or the privileges and immunities clause of the Indiana Constitution. Although the state's alleged policy covers people charged with D felonies who all have some link to mental illness, there was nothing to show the state's policy related to their mental illness, wrote the judge.

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