The 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives citizens the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. However, before choosing this approach, you need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.
In this article we’ll cover the basics of asking for a jury trial in order to give you the information you need to make an informed choice for your case.
What is a Bench Trial?
To begin, you need to understand the differences between a bench trial and a jury trial.
A bench trial is conducted in front of a judge without a jury present. Instead of having a jury decide your fate, you will argue your case to the judge alone.
Your plea will have a large effect on your decision whether to have a bench or jury trial.
If you plead guilty or no contest to the charges, you’ll almost always have a bench trial. However, if you plead not guilty, you have the right to choose either.
The Bench Trial Process
In a bench trial, the prosecution and defense will argue their case in front of the judge. During this trial, you should expect to go through several steps:
- The court calls the case.
- Both lawyers make opening statements.
- The prosecution, then the defense, argues their case.
- Both attorneys make their closing arguments.
- The judge renders the decision of guilty or not guilty.
During the trial, the judge or jury may also decide what sentence you’ll receive.
However, in more serious criminal cases a sentencing hearing will be held at another court date sometime after the trial.
Advantages of a Bench Trial in Virginia
While planning your defense, you and your lawyer may find that a bench trial is the best choice for your specific case.
Some advantages that bench trials offer include:
The Judge Knows the Law — If you truly feel that the law is on your side, a bench trial may be the better option.
A judge will better understand the nuances of the law than a jury.
Further, they are more likely to understand complex legal arguments (such as a defense based on faulty arrest procedure).
A Bench Trial Saves Time and Money — Compared to jury trials, bench trials are actually much cheaper.
By choosing a bench trial, you avoid the costs associated with choosing jurors and preparing an argument tailored towards them.
The Jury Can Sometimes Be Emotional — Compared to judges, juries often respond more to emotional appeals than logical or legal ones.
If there is a chance your case might offend jurors, you might want to consider a bench trial instead.
Juries are Inexperienced and Unpredictable — This is, by far, the most important advantage to a bench trial.
Since jurors have little legal training, they may misunderstand or misinterpret something that the attorneys present in court.
It is impossible to predict the education, intelligence, and experiences of the jurors that will serve in a trial.
A Judge Will Determine Your Sentence — This happens in all bench trials. Sentencing by jury can be somewhat unpredictable.
This can make it difficult for your attorney to advise you of the best course of action before or during the trial.
Further, judges are more likely to align their sentences with the Virginia Code and Virginia’s sentencing guidelines.
This means the chance of an unexpectedly harsh punishment is much lower.
What is a Jury Trial?
A jury trial is a trial where a panel of 7-12 people decides whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. While the judge will generally direct the court proceedings, the jury has the final decision in the case.
A jury trial generally follows the same process as a bench trial, however, there are two key differences:
- Instead of the judge, the jury determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
- If they find the defendant guilty, the jury will decide on sentencing.
All defendants charged with non-petty criminal offenses (any charge that carries a possibility of six months or more in jail) are guaranteed the right to a trial by jury.
However, especially in recent years, the number of cases handled by jurors has dwindled.
To give some rough estimates, in Virginia nearly 90% of cases end in guilty pleas (i.e. don’t go to trial), 9% of cases are heard by a judge, and only 1% appear before a jury.
While jury trials are certainly an effective strategy in some cases, the money and time that goes into them often force defendants to choose bench trials instead.
Advantages of a Jury Trial
There are several advantages associated with a trial by jury.
Depending on your situation, you and your attorney may decide that this is the best option for your case.
A Guilty Verdict Must be Unanimous — This is a major advantage of jury trials, and the most important reason that a defendant will choose a trial by jury.
If a juror has any doubt about the witness testimony or evidence presented, that juror is duty bound to declare the defendant not guilty.
Convincing just one juror of your innocence can be enough to result in a hung jury.
Emotional Cases have Weight — When lawyers argue in front of a jury, they will try to tell a story that elicits an emotional response. Generally speaking, juries are easier to sway emotionally than judges.
Avoiding a Judge — Although judges are law experts, no one is immune to certain prejudices and tendencies—and anyone can have a bad day.
By hiring a lawyer who knows the local criminal judges, you can avoid having your case heard by a judge who might hand down a harsher sentence for a particular crime.
If your case goes to trial, you’ll want to speak with your attorney about whether you should choose a bench trial or a jury trial.
There are certain advantages and disadvantages to both.
Your attorney may be familiar with the judge in the case and will have an informed opinion about which strategy is best for you.
Whichever you choose, it’s critical that you have a competent and experienced criminal defense attorney who can guide you to the best possible defense.