Saturday, June 6, 2009

A woman accused of killing her four daughters asked a D.C. Superior Court judge Friday to decide her case himself instead of giving it to a jury - a rare move that some experts say could work to her advantage.

Peter Krauthamer, a public defender for Banita Jacks, said during a hearing that he has explained to Miss Jacks her rights and that she wants to waive her right to a jury trial, currently scheduled for July 13. That would leave her with a bench trial in which a judge decides her fate.

Miss Jacks pleaded not guilty in September to charges of premeditated first-degree murder. In an indictment, a grand jury said Miss Jacks’ oldest daughter had been stabbed and the others strangled.

Superior Court officials say defendants in felony cases at the court rarely waive the right to a jury trial. Judge Frederick H. Weisberg set a hearing for July 2 to take up the matter.

“I want you to fully understand” what would be gained and what would be lost, Judge Weisberg told Miss Jacks.

The decomposing bodies of Miss Jacks’ daughters - ages 5 to 17 - were found in January 2008 when deputy U.S. marshals served an eviction notice at her home in Southeast.

At Friday’s hearing, Judge Weisberg said he previously agreed to waive a jury trial in another serious case. At that time, he said, he informed the defendant of his rights and what a bench trial would entail.

But when Judge Weisberg found the man guilty on some charges, the judge recalled, the man asked for a new trial, claiming that he was not entirely aware of his rights. Judge Weisberg said he denied the request.

Paul Butler, a George Washington University law school professor and a former federal prosecutor, said it’s unusual for defendants in serious cases to ask for a bench trial.

But given the allegations, defense attorneys might be concerned that jurors would find it difficult to stay objective, he said.

“When you a have a case with very emotional and inflammatory facts, … strategically, a defendant might be better off going with a judge,” Mr. Butler said.

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