Defendants who are charged with a criminal offense have the right to request a jury trial. For many criminal cases, a jury trial could be a defendant’s best option. A jury trial is not mandatory, though. A defendant can waive his/her jury trial and agree to have the judge assigned to the case try the case. When a judge tries your case, that trial is called a bench trial.
Bench trials may be more expedient than jury trials
Normally, a judge will decide a case much faster than a jury will. There are other times when a judge, defense lawyer, and prosecutor can quickly agree on a point of law, as opposed to in a jury trial where the lawyers are more conscious of making sure every procedural rule is considered and every issue is explained to the jury, Further, there is no need to select a jury, and no exhibits to show and explain to them. There are (usually) no opening arguments, which means witnesses are called more quickly.
If the judge wants to speak with your defense lawyer and the prosecutor when there is a jury trial, the judge may either need to temporarily dismiss the jury or have your lawyer and the prosecutor approach the bench where they can speak quietly. In a bench trial, none of that is necessary.
Finally, the lawyers can stipulate to certain facts during a bench trial. In a jury trial, your lawyer may want to the jury to introduce your testimony from your witnesses or cross-examine the prosecution witnesses.
All of this adds up to time and (potentially) money saved, especially in complex cases.
What are the key considerations in jury trials?
A bench trial may work for some, but jury trials are the bedrock of our justice system. The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution provides “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…” You have a right to trial by a jury of you peers, and you should not waive that right if it is better for you.
A quick note about jury selection
The process for selecting a jury is called “voir dire.” During voir dire, your lawyer and the prosecution have the right to ask potential jurors questions to determine if they can fairly decide your case. Normally, your lawyer and the prosecution can disqualify a small number of jurors for any reason. When the lawyers have used up these open challenges, the lawyers need to convince a judge that a potential juror cannot decide your case fairly.
There is an art to selecting a juror. You and your lawyer are usually trying to determine if a juror has any prejudices or biases that might favor the prosecution instead of you. For example, you and your lawyer will consider the race, age, gender, and socio-economic status of the juror. Sometimes, there are small tipoffs about juror preferences – such as if a juror is wearing a tiepin in the shape of a rifle – which could potentially affect the outcome of your case. Jurors are “supposed” to be impartial – but often they are not.
Why a bench trial might be preferable
The main factor in choosing a bench trial over a jury trial is that you and your lawyer think a judge is more likely to find you not guilty than a jury. Some of the thinking behind choosing a judge over a jury are:
- The judge’s opinions on certain issues are on record, which may prove favorable to you.
- Judges understand that jury trials use up a lot of court time and money. Some judges appreciate that you spared the county these expenses – and may consider that you chose a bench trial over a jury trial – in the sentencing phase of a trial.
- The experience and skills of the prosecutor may be a factor that suggests your lawyer will have an advantage in a bench trial.
- Juries are less predictable than judges.
- The legal fees are less significant in certain lesser charges.
- The offense does not warrant a jury trial.
Why a jury trial might be preferable
The general thought is that juries are more likely to understand the circumstances behind the offense than a judge is. For jurors, this is the only time they will likely decide anyone’s fate in this manner, so the jurors are likely to take their time and make sure they are comfortable with their decision. This is especially important if the judge in on the record for particularly harsh sentencing of a specific crime; the jury may recommend a lesser sentence and end up convincing the judge to follow their guidance.
At Carey Law Office, our experienced criminal defense lawyer has been fighting for criminal defendants in Bowie, Crofton, and the surrounding areas for 40 years. He understands much more than just the legal arguments. He understands many of the practical issues and minor details that are often instrumental in obtaining acquittals, plea bargains, acquittals, lesser sentences, or alternative sentences. We understand how the criminal process works. If you’ve been arrested for any crime, call our experienced Bowie and Crofton defense lawyer at 301-464-2500 or use our contact form to make an appointment.
My name is Joe Carey, and I am the founder and principal attorney of the Carey Law Office. I have lived in Maryland my entire life. I grew up in a small town in Prince George’s County and, with the help of my partner in life, Nancy, I raised my family here: three exceptional children (a son and two daughters), and two goofy, spoiled black Labrador Retrievers. Learn More