Advice for choosing trial by judge or jury
In a criminal case, the Defendant ultimately has to choose between taking his or her case to trial or taking a plea deal. By taking a plea, you are waiving your right to go to a trial. If you decide to go to trial, however, the next decision is whether or not your trial will be by a judge (also called a bench trial) or a jury trial.
Before you can properly determine between a bench or a jury trial, it is important to understand the goal of a trial. A trial is the final meeting of parties to a dispute, each presenting their points of view through evidence which is heard and evaluated by an independent party. Once all of the evidence is presented, a fair and impartial decision in the matter is decided. The independent party is typically either a judge or a jury. A judge is an individual person, usually a former lawyer, whose function is to sit and listen to disputes. A jury is a group of individuals, called jurors, ranging from six to 12 citizens. These jurors are not usually lawyers and have no knowledge or affiliation with either side of the dispute.
Depending on the nature of your case, it is important to keep in mind the differences between each option. The basic advice set forth below serve as a guide for deciding between a judge or a jury trial.
- consult a lawyer – always
- familiarize yourself with the differences between the two options
- carefully consider the pros and cons of each type of trial
- ask your lawyer the right questions
- take this decision lightly
- wait until the last minute to decide
- assume a jury will be more lenient than a judge
- assume a jury will be less influenced by a high profile case
Do consult a lawyer – always
As with every legal issue, it is always recommended to consult with a lawyer. There are lawyers who are willing to work with you and your particular budget. Ask friends or family members for referrals and conduct your own research. Ultimately, it’s ideal to interview several lawyers in your area until you find the one that you connect with and feel will be the best fit for your legal issue.
Do familiarize yourself with the differences between the two options
Judges and jurors each approach cases in different ways. A judge brings all of his or her legal training and experience to the table during the trial. A judge will evaluate the evidence in relation to the applicable rules of evidence. A jury typically has little to no legal training or experience and evaluates the evidence from a strictly factual perspective.
Do carefully consider the pros and cons of each type of trial
There are many significant factors that differentiate the pros and cons of a judge versus a jury trial. A bench trial consists of one person evaluating and deciding on the facts presented. A jury is comprised of 6 to 12 individual people, each with their own perspectives and views on the evidence presented. There are more chances for one person from the jury to agree with your side or perspective, as opposed to the judge who evaluates the case on his or her own.
However, a trial by judge can be ideal for people representing themselves. A judge will typically be easier or more lax with the rules of evidence, objections, or general courtroom protocol. A jury would typically be far more critical of courtroom blunders, even if done by a person representing him or herself. Of greatest concern for someone representing him or herself, would be the prospect of having to pick a jury on your own. This is an incredibly difficult task for trained lawyers and is near impossible for someone representing their own interest in court.
Do ask your lawyer the right questions
When you consult with your lawyer, there are key questions that can help guide you in your decision. These may include:
- How many years experience do you have handling criminal cases?
- Has your attorney handled cases involving the specific charges that you are facing?
- Has your attorney handled both jury and non-jury trials before?
- What specific trial experience do you have in criminal cases?
- When was the last time your attorney has actually taken a case to trial?
Do not take this decision lightly
Under certain circumstances, choosing between a judge or a jury trial can mean the difference between winning or losing. Do not underestimate the seriousness of the decision. For example, if you have a case that hinges on a highly technical legal defense, you may want a judge trial. An experienced judge, who understands the legal defense and how it applies to the facts of your case, would potentially be a far better audience for the trial than a jury of laypeople who may find the defense confusing or inapplicable.
Do not wait until the last minute to decide
The decision between a judge trial or a jury trial is a very important decision that can drastically impact your case. Do not wait until the day of trial to speak with your attorney and discuss this important issue. Much time and thought needs to go into the decision making process.
Do not assume a jury will be more lenient than a judge
A jury is made of everyday people. There may be specific facts pattern or circumstances in which you want a decision to be made by a jury as opposed to a judge. A jury, while they are not supposed to, allows their decisions to be swayed by emotion or anger. A judge is trained to set aside his or her anger, or emotion when deciding a case.
Do not assume a jury will be less influenced by a high profile case
When a case is high profile, pressure from news media, politicians or other organizations can affect the judge’s decision. A judge is also an elected position and has to be concerned about the wishes of his or her constituency.
When going to trial the decision between a judge or a jury trial is a crucial one. Follow what is outlined above and you will be far more educated as you make your decision.