Few cases result in jury trials

In Johnson County and across the state, when a suspect is charged with a crime, calling in a jury, preparing evidence and arguments and spending tax dollars for expert witnesses is rarely needed.

In 2014, only six local cases required a jury trial, making up less one-tenth of 1 percent of all criminal cases resolved last year.

Statewide, that isn’t unusual, according to statistics showing how many cases were opened and closed by Indiana county courts.

Most criminal cases are resolved in other ways, such as a defendant pleading guilty, a case being dismissed because of a lack of evidence or witnesses willing to testify, and someone entering a program that will erase a possession of marijuana or driving on a suspended license conviction from the record if the person don’t commit another crime, according to prosecutor Brad Cooper.

The lack of jury trials in the county was one of the key points raised by a group of attorneys who filed a civil lawsuit against county judges, officials and public defenders. The attorneys represent local offenders, who claimed they weren’t getting proper representation from public defenders named to their cases in local courts, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that offenders were pressured into pleading guilty to resolve their case and that few cases go to jury trial locally.

But the attorneys who filed the lawsuit also said the same issues were present in multiple other counties around the state. For example, Marion County had 218 jury trials last year, out of more than 207,000 cases resolved, according to the state statistics.

In Johnson County, most cases are dismissed, decided by a judge or resolved when the defendant pleads guilty or enters into a diversion or deferral program, allowing him or her to eventually have the conviction erased after following the rules of the program, according to the state statistics.

The decision to go to trial is up to the defendant and his or her attorney, Cooper said.

“We file cases. We prosecute them. And if they want a jury trial, we will give them a jury trial,” Cooper said.

But often, defendants choose not to go to trial because they could face more time in prison if they are found guilty and then sentenced, he said.

Jury trials are expensive, so if defendants are paying an attorney, they must foot that cost, Johnson County Superior Court 3 Judge Lance Hamner said.

If they can’t afford an attorney and are appointed a public defender, taxpayers pay the cost of the trial, he said.

That’s one reason why if someone pleads guilty and avoids going to trial, judges can consider that factor during sentencing, and the person could receive a lesser sentence, Hamner said.

So far this year, Hamner said, his court has not had any jury trials, but more than 100 cases are still going through the court process and are slated for jury trial. That could change if suspects decide to plead guilty, he said.

Cooper expects to have some jury trials this year after the recent arrests of 50 people on drug dealing offenses. But in many of those cases, he said, the county has solid evidence, including video of people selling drugs to undercover officers.