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GA Court of Appeals Finds Jury Trial Waiver Valid in Rape Case

October 3, 2013

In Birdette v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s rape conviction and held that despite the defendant’s mental retardation, he “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived the right to a jury trial.”

The defendant was convicted of rape following a bench trial. The evidence showed that before the start of the trial, the judge said to the defendant “I want to make sure you understand that we’re doing this as a bench trial, meaning that I’m going to sit as a jury would and make the decisions about the facts as well as the law. You and [your defense attorney] have talked about that?” The defendant answered “yes”. When the judge asked if that is what the defendant wanted to do, the defendant again answered in the affirmative. The prosecutor then said “Just to be clear, Mr. Birdette is expressly waiving his right to a jury trial.” The judge repeated, “You are giving up your right to a jury trial,” and the defendant said “yes ma’am.”

According to a clinical psychologist called by the defense, the defendant Birdette had an IQ of 52 and a mental age of 13 or 14. The expert concluded that Birdette understood the charges against him, was able to communicate adequately about the circumstances which gave rise to the charges, and was competent to stand trial. Prior to trial, Birdette’s defense attorney testified that he explained the difference between a jury trial and a bench trial to the defendant several times, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each. Counsel advised Birdette that in a bench trial, he would have “a better chance of some kind of success.” Counsel testified that Birdette “agreed that we should go forward with a bench trial.” Birdette testified that he did not understand the difference between a bench trial and a jury trial, and did not understand that his trial counsel advised him to have a bench trial instead of a jury trial.

The Supreme Court of Georgia has held that in order for the right to a jury trial to be properly waived, the State must establish that the defendant “personally, knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently choose to waive” that right. The Georgia Court of Appeals has previously held that a court may find that an individual is capable of waiving the right to a jury trial even if that defendant is moderately mentally retarded.

In this case, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Birdette’s trial counsel, who was aware of Birdette’s capacities, testified that he met with him several times to explain the advantages and disadvantages of a bench versus a jury trial and that Birdette agreed to go forward with a bench trial. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court, who heard the testimony, was in the best position to determine whether Birdette validly waived his right, and the record showed no clear error. Thus, the Court of Appeals ruled that Birdette had validly waived his right to a jury trial, and upheld his conviction for rape.

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