Should You Choose A Bench Or Jury Trial?
America's system of criminal guarantees every defendant the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. People are often surprised to learn, though, that they can waive this right and instead seek a bench trial. Here is a look at jury and bench trials along with why you may choose one versus the other.
Thanks to television and movies, most folks have a fair idea of what a jury trial is. In the vast majority of U.S. states, the court selects a dozen citizens to hear the merits of the government's case against a defendant. Those 12 people then have to agree that the defendant committed the crimes in question. Otherwise, the state can't convict and punish the defendant.
To the extent a judge plays a role in the case, they do so by guiding the jury in understanding the applicable laws. Likewise, a judge will decide what to allow the jury to see based on the rules of evidence. Also, a criminal law attorney can ask the judge to throw out or reduce the charges.
Finally, the judge decides what the punishment should be. In many states, the jury can provide a recommendation.
An alternative approach is the bench trial. In this scenario, the judge serves their standard role while also doing the jury's job of deciding if the defendant is guilty. Unsurprisingly, bench trials are somewhat rare because a criminal defense firm will usually bet on trying to persuade one out of 12 regular people as opposed to convincing one judge.
Merits of Jury Trials
The main merit of a jury trial is the fundamental idea that 12 people can barely ever agree on anything. Also, average people are often much better at imagining themselves in a defendant's shoes.
Criminal defense law allows you to have some say in the jury selection process. Every state uses different laws, but some jurisdictions allow the defense a certain number of unquestioned vetoes of juries. Also, judges always have the power to bar a juror if they might be prejudiced against the defense.
Why Would Anyone Do a Bench Trial?
A criminal law attorney will typically provide two arguments for a bench trial. First, some defendants don't represent sympathetic figures. An investment manager might have done unethical things that aren't illegal, for example. Jurors can struggle to protect the rights of defendants who might come off as unseemly.
Secondly, the case may involve legal complexities that go over the juror's heads. If you need to present a legally nuanced defense, a judge might be a better choice.