Bench Trial versus Jury Trial: Which is Better
You have the right to a speedy trial. It is a fundamental Constitutional right that prevents you from sitting in jail waiting months or years to have your day in court. However, you can waive that right and opt for the bench trial. In a bench trial, a judge oversees the case and takes the role of the jury.
Many defendants opt for bench trials, while others prefer the traditional jury trial. If you are weighing your options, you may wonder which is best for your case. Naturally, you should consult with your criminal defense attorney to decide which route is best, because the details of your case play a significant role.
The Benefits of Opting for the Bench Trial
If you have a case decided by a judge, the judge serves two functions.
First, he or she is the referee on the rules of the court and following the statutes. They will decide on questions of law, and determine the amount of weight that a witness’s testimony should receive, and so forth.
Second, he or she decides the verdict. They will determine if the defendant is “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Attorneys and criminal defendants may prefer a bench trial if they have a complicated case, or one that they feel would receive too much bias from a jury panel. In these cases, a bench trial is best. Some attorneys believe that a bench trial provides an advantage to the defendant because they will not receive as harsh of a verdict from the judge.
Juries are very unpredictable, and unless your attorney feels that they can swing the jury to their side, they may recommend a bench trial.
The Benefits of Opting for a Jury Trial
A jury consists of members of the community. For a criminal case, the jury must still learn the standards for the burden of proof and ensure that the prosecutor meets that burden of the evidence. A judge does have a firmer grasp on this concept and how it can shift throughout the course of a case, while a jury does not.
Typically, juries are swayed by emotions as well. While they are questioned and told to be impartial, it is human nature to have an emotional response and decide based on that emotional response.
A vast majority of juries are sympathetic. However, this could work in your favor rather than against you. If the jury is sympathetic to your defense, they may find you “not guilty.” Alternatively, they could sympathize with the victim and think you’re guilty.
Jury nullification is a mystery, and most attorneys prefer to avoid it. No one knows for certain what a group of individuals will decide. There’s no way to know what will sway them. Given that level of unreliability, your attorney might suggest a bench trial to avoid emotional jury verdicts.
A word of caution: do not assume a jury trial is best for you based on what you’ve seen on TV. A jury may acquit a defendant despite the evidence showing their guilt, while a judge is unlikely to do so. However, a jury could also convict based on emotion, while a judge would stick more to the facts and evidence.
Consult with an Attorney to Decide Which is Best
While there are pros and cons to each side, it is best to consult with your criminal defense attorney and go from there on which route is best. Your attorney will consider the evidence, the prospective jury pool of your community, and the emotional factors that could result in a positive or negative outcome.
Attorneys have years of experience handling these decisions, and while you might feel that one option is better than the other, you should still consult with a lawyer before officially deciding.