In a criminal case, a defendant will be given an option between a bench trial or a jury trial. A bench trial is a trial by a judge. The judge listens to the case in its entirety and renders a verdict. In other words, the judge plays two roles in the trial. The judge will still act as a judge and rule on the admissible of evidence and make decisions regarding questions of law. The judge will also act as the finder of fact and weigh the credibility of the evidence presented. In a jury trial, the decision of guilty or not guilty is left to the panel of jurors. It is a big decision as to whether you should select a jury trial or bench trial and there are potential risks and benefits of both. We will discuss some of those potential risks and benefits here.
Is a Bench Trial Preferable to a Jury Trial?
There are several reasons why a defendant may want to think about waiving a jury trial in favor of a bench trial. For one, judges are, of course, more familiar with the law than many who would serve on a jury. In that case, a judge may be more inclined to render a verdict based on the objective application of the relevant law to the pertinent facts without bias or lack of understanding getting involved. This could work in favor of some defendants, particularly those whose cases present complex legal issues and unsympathetic facts.
When you present a case before a judge as opposed to a jury, it can be much easier to focus on the critical evidence and central arguments of the case. In a jury trial, a substantial amount of time is often dedicated to addressing the potential biases of the jurors. Because of a judge’s role in the court system, he or she already understands the need for cases to be decided based on the merits and not personal feelings and biases.
A bench trial may also be preferable due to the fact that these trials tend to be much quicker than jury trials. In a jury trial, time must be spent on things like jury selection, and the processes within a jury trial can be much more time-consuming. A lengthier trial will also likely mean that it will be more expensive for a defendant who has retained private counsel.
Despite these potential benefits of a bench trial, many, if not most, defendants opt for a jury trial. This is simply because juries are more susceptible to being swayed by sympathy and appeals to common humanity. It is also because a jury trial means that a panel of, in most cases, twelve individuals will decide a person’s fate as opposed to just one. These are solid reasons why jury trials appeal to many. Unsympathetic defendants, however, whether it be due to their appearance, beliefs, or something else, may not want to take the gamble with a jury trial.
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