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Bench Trial or Jury Trial: What's the Difference?

Most of us know we have the right to a speedy jury trial. But many of us don't know that we can waive that right, if we choose.

Criminal defendants can choose to have what is known as a bench trial, where a judge takes on the role of the jury. Why would you choose a bench trial instead of a jury trial? And what are the pros and cons of either option?

Sixth and Serious

While the Sixth Amendment says "In all criminal prosecutions," courts have limited the right to a jury trial to "serious" offenses (normally those for which a conviction could mean six months or more in jail). So trials for many petty crimes, misdemeanors, and infractions, may not be assigned to a jury. A bench trial before a judge is often the only option.

Benefits of the Bench

A defendant may opt for a bench trial if he or she believes the case will turn on technical legal concepts only a judge will be able to discern. A judge may also:

  • Pay more attention to the details of the case (rather than if he or she is missing too much work);
  • Distinguish between admissible and inadmissible evidence (rather than forget that he or she was told to disregard a statement);
  • Be more objective and less prone to racial, gender, or other bias (rather than thinking you remind her of her cheating ex).

Perks of Your Peers

On the other hand, a jury may be more sympathetic to your circumstances, or may not like the law prosecutors are using to charge you. The little known and even less talked about phenomenon of jury nullification -- where a jury decides to acquit a defendant despite all evidence and law to the contrary -- isn't likely to happen when it's a judge hearing your case.

Choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial is better left to the experts. You should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to figure out which option is right for you.

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