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Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Both

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What’s the best option to render your trial verdict—a jury or a judge? In a criminal trial, the defendant is allowed to choose to have a trial by jury or a trial by judge, also called a bench trial.

There are specific advantages to having your case heard in a bench trial instead of a jury trial. Bench trials are often:

  • Less time-consuming
  • Less complex than a jury trial
  • Less formal (your defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney are sometimes able to discuss and agree on some—or all—of the pertinent case facts)
  • Chosen by the defendant in cases presenting with complex facts or legal subtleties

The judge of a bench trial is also provided with a stipulation of facts instead of the presentation of witness testimony and documentary evidence to determine the case facts. He or she decides whether the presented evidence warrants a guilty or not guilty verdict.

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Are Bench Trials Always Advantageous?

No. Because the judge is sitting in for the jury, there’s no need to present jury instructions on either side of the case. For that reason, the judge decides the proper instructions in consideration of the admissible evidence.

Jury instructions may offer grounds for a future appeal because the appellate lawyer may argue that the judge provided reversible error in the jury instructions. Since jury instructions aren’t necessary for a bench trial, the defendant may have fewer grounds on which to assert an appeal if he or she is convicted.

What’s more, a case with riveting facts is often a better candidate for a jury trial. The jury may also sympathize with the defendant in a criminal case.

The reasons to choose a bench trial instead of a jury trial should be carefully weighed. The defendant and his or her attorney must weigh often complex facts as well as significant financial and legal consequences.

How Does a Jury Trial Compare to a Bench Trial?

A jury trial is determined by a selected panel of the defendant’s peers. Under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all criminal defendants have the right to a jury trial. The defendant is guaranteed the legal right to a speedy public trial by an impartial jury. During the voir dire phase of the trial, both the defense attorney and prosecutor asks potential jurors questions under oath in order to discern their likelihood of serving as impartial members of the jury.

The jury is typically made up of twelve individuals who must evaluate the evidence offered in the court case. They must weigh and discuss discrepancies in the presentation of evidence.

At the start of the trial, the judge provides members of the jury with some instructions about their fact-finding role. However, in most trials, the judge is likely to provide most of the instructions after both sides have presented their evidence. After the evidence presentation is completed, the jury will apply the law according to the judge’s instructions regarding the facts of the case. It must decide if the prosecutor met the burden of proof in the case. They will also attempt to resolve discrepancies concerning the facts to render a unanimous verdict.

If the jury determines that the prosecutor met the required burden, the defendant is convicted of the crime. If the jury determines the prosecutor hasn’t met the burden, then the defendant is found not guilty.

The jury’s role is typically concluded with sentencing if the defendant is found guilty. In a death penalty case, the judge is called on to determine the sentencing.

What Are Some of the Reasons a Bench Trial Takes Place?

There are many reasons to choose a bench trial, including:

  • Municipal Court. Municipal courts don’t preside over jury trials. A bench trial is the only option in that case.
  • Nuanced Legal Issue(s). The defendant and his or her criminal defense attorney may believe that the fact pattern involves nuanced legal issue(s) that a judge may best understand. A complex criminal case involving tax laws might involve legal nuances.
  • Legal Fees. A bench trial may require less time for the criminal defense attorney and, therefore, fewer fees for the client defendant.
  • Sexually Explicit, Racially Charged Fact Patterns. The defendant and his or her defense attorney may believe that a judge is best able to deliberate the facts of the case.
  • Informal Environment. A bench trial is often less formal than a jury trial and typically requires less time to conclude.

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What Are the Advantages or Disadvantages of a Bench Trial?

It’s important to carefully weigh the advantages or disadvantages of a bench trial. For example:

  • Ask your criminal defense attorney about the judge selected to preside over the case. An experienced criminal defense attorney will usually be able to offer insight about the judge.
  • Discuss the judge’s “tendencies” concerning cases similar to your own. Judges may dislike certain types of cases. If a judge really dislikes those defendants who refuse a field sobriety test in a DUI case, it may make good sense to request a jury trial.
  • Choose an experienced criminal defense attorney. You want an attorney with jury trial experience in your jurisdiction. Ask him to offer insight about how a jury may respond to your case: if local jurors tend to doubt decisions made by law enforcement in a DUI case, it may make sense to ask for a jury trial.
  • Consider the prosecutor. Again, an experienced criminal defense attorney is likely to have deep experience in arguing cases with the prosecutor.

Realize that you’re entitled to a complete evidentiary bench trial if you’re accused of a criminal offense. You have the right to engage a criminal defense attorney to represent you at the trial. Although a bench trial may be a good decision in many cases, it’s not always the best course.

There might be other reasons to choose a bench trial, such as:

  • A jury trial is likely to take more time and, most of the time costs more than a bench trial. Your criminal defense attorney will take more time to evaluate the potential jurors and weigh in concerning jury selection.
  • A jury might not understand an extremely complex case.
  • Juries are known to be unpredictable. Jurors may misunderstand the judge’s instructions or fail to comprehend the burden of proof.
  • Jurors may have an inherent bias. Although the juror is supposed to be impartial, he or she may completely disregard your presumed innocence.

Before deciding whether a bench trial or a jury trial is best for you, consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. You need advice on how to proceed.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Houston

The decision to choose a bench trial or jury trial can affect the outcome of your case, sometimes in profound ways. Brett Podolsky is Texas board-certified in criminal law and is a former Assistant Criminal District Attorney for the state of Texas. His knowledge of court proceedings can help you to develop a trial strategy geared at making the best decisions for your case. Call the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky in Houston to arrange an initial case evaluation now.

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