Should I Take a Jury Trial or a Bench Trial in My Criminal Case?
The U.S. Constitution guarantees that all people facing criminal charges in the United States have the right to request a jury trial. In many criminal cases, asserting one’s right to a jury trial can have many advantages. But there are also certain advantages to taking a trial in which a judge decides one’s criminal case, which is known as a “bench trial.”
A jury trial involves the assembly of a jury, which is composed of 12 individuals who are eligible for duty prior to the beginning of the trial. A group of prospective jurors (approximately 40) is led into the courtroom and each juror is assigned a number. These jurors are questioned by the attorneys and/or the judge to determine whether they have any prior connection with, or know any of the parties, attorneys, or witnesses, or whether they have any strong opinions or biases on issues related to the case, which might impact upon their ability to render a fair and unbiased decision. The process for selecting a jury is called “voir dire.”
In a jury trial, the prosecutor must prove to the jury that the defendant committed each element of the alleged crime, and the decision of the jury must be unanimous in order to convict the defendant. The right to a jury trial is only guaranteed in cases in which incarceration is at risk. Otherwise, for lesser offenses that do not involve possible imprisonment, the defendant will have a bench trial.
In a jury trial, a judge does preside over the case, but her role is limited to regulating the procedural and evidentiary issues during the trial, such as, who is eligible to testify in a case, what physical evidence may be presented, and the scope and content of witnesses’ testimony.
If a defendant chooses a bench trial, the judge will assume the role of the jury as the finder of fact, i.e., an impartial person or examiner chosen to evaluate and determine the facts underlying a given case. The court rules of procedure and evidence are the same as with a jury trial. The essential difference is that in a bench trial, the judge will ultimately render the final verdict.
Some key considerations in selecting a jury trial or a bench trial include the complexity of the legal issues; expedience and convenience; cost of litigation; and appeal to the sympathies of a jury. For instance, bench trials are usually far less time-consuming, less expensive, and are typically conducted more informally than jury trials. The processes of selecting a jury, instructing a jury, and jury deliberation can be time-consuming, and conducting bench trials obviates the need for such lengthy procedures. Further, judges understand that jury trials use substantial resources and take significant time and the judge may appreciate that a defendant spared the county these expenses in opting for a bench trial and may give this due consideration in issuing a criminal sentence.
If the case consists of legal issues that are particularly complex, it might be favorable to one’s case to choose a bench trial and entrust the matter to a judge, who has a clear understanding of the relevant law. Likewise, if the facts of a case are unusually complicated, then it might be preferable to have the case decided by a judge, who is trained and experienced in analyzing the facts and applying the relevant law to the defendant’s case.
If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, contact the criminal defense lawyers at Tanner Law Offices. Our team of skilled professionals is prepared to defend you through this challenging time and ensure your rights are fully protected. Please contact our office at 717-731-8114 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.