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What is a Bench Trial? Jury vs Bench Trial

One of the most inalienable aspects of the American justice system is the presumption of innocence—a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. So it is upon the prosecution to provide evidence to prove beyond any reasonable doubt the defendant is guilty of the charges against them. Depending on the offense committed, the defendant can either face a jury or a bench trial. So how are these two legal processes different?

In a nutshell, a bench trial is a legal court process presided upon by a jury of your peers, whereas a judge steers a bench trial.

Bench Trial Explained

bench trial happens before a judge. He/she hears and analyzes the evidence provided before them and makes a ruling. In the United States, 88% of all federal cases that make it to trial are handled by a jury.

During the bench trial, the prosecutor will be required to provide all the evidence linking the defendant to the criminal charges against them to convince the court they are guilty. Suppose the defendant is facing trial on DUI offenses. The prosecutor will be expected to provide a blood test result indicating the driver had a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of over 0.04 percent while operating a commercial vehicle.

Where witnesses are required to testify, both the prosecutor and the defendant will be allowed to provide their side of the argument. During this time, the defense team can examine the state’s evidence and ask the court to disqualify some of the evidence because they are irrelevant, prejudicial, fabricated, or not correctly obtained. If the judge made an error, the law allows the defendant to appeal to a higher court, modifying the decision or asking the judge to reconsider under a different standard.

In some situations, the attorney may prefer a bench trial because it eases the presentation of evidence and arguments aimed at convincing the court to acquit their client. This is sometimes useful in complicated cases. It also takes less time to persuade a bench judge than 12 jurors. They can also take advantage of the judge’s recent published opinion to get potential leads to build a winning defense. Within the opinion, the judge can provide excellent insight into preferences regarding the presentation of evidence, specific behaviors by parties that led to the win or loss of a case, and the most convincing arguments during the trial.

What happens when the defendant chooses a bench trial?

The defendant will enjoy the following benefits from the bench trial:

  • Faster conclusion of the case: The judge selected to handle the case when it was filed can take less time to schedule the trial date and make a ruling than the jury that will take more time on selection procedures before the trial begins. Another important thing about this is that the defendant will use less money, especially if they have a private attorney.
  • Fair application of legal rules: These are rules that have been formally approved by a state’s legislative organ and are interpreted by courts while making rulings on cases presented to them. The case can turn out to be complicated, making the judge apply complex legal rule evidence presented. Many lawyers have a problem with jurors who they believe make judgments based on emotions and ignore the rules compared to the bench trial.
  • There is control of submissions made to the court: A bench trial provides the best opportunity for a defendant’s lawyer to ask the judge to refrain the prosecutor or witnesses from presenting baseless and irrelevant information that can damage the defendant’s reputation during the trial. Being the only one presiding over the trial, they can not use the information while ruling.

However, the defendant may face the following challenges during the bench trial:

  • The prosecutor will also find it easy to convince a bench judge, especially when they have concrete evidence against the defendant. The defendant’s lawyer can also find it hard to convince the judge, especially when he already has a presumptive opinion about the defendant based on the previous offenses and appearing like a gangster.
  • The judge can dismiss an application by the defense team seeking to prevent the prosecution team from presenting specific damaging evidence against their client, leading to loss of a case, unlike in the jury where some judges can rule in favor of the defendant.
  • Depending on the nature of the offense committed, the judge may be swayed by public outcry and rule against the defense team. It is believed that judges working in public offices are likely to please the public by ruling in their favor to remain in office or have a better chance to be reappointed.

Jury Trial Explained

Unlike the bench trial, the jury trial happens before a group of jurors who listen and examine facts in the evidence presented by both parties during the trial to make a ruling whether the defendant is guilty or not. Jury trials mainly deal with severe criminal cases like rape and murder. But they also handle cases of fraud, defamation, and false imprisonment.

In the United States, defendants are entitled to a jury trial depending on the gravity of the crime committed. During this trial, the lead judge will play a significant role in determining the evidence the jury should consider while handling a case. He will also direct the jurors on the legal rule to be applied while considering facts presented in the evidence, and if the defendant is found guilty, the judge will sentence them.

jury trial is better compared to a bench trial in the following ways:

  • If jurors have been victimized, say by a traffic court system, they might be willing to consider your argument. If your message is incredibly compelling and emotionally appealing, you’ll usually have a greater chance of satisfying a jury.
  • If you’re experiencing severe repercussions from a guilty verdict, such as losing your license or facing prison time, you’ll be better off facing a jury of your peers, who might be more sensitive to your case than a judge.
  • To win a case in a jury trial, you (or your lawyer) need to persuade one member of the jury that you are not guilty. On the other hand, judges are usually a harder audience to convince, having formerly served as attorneys.

However, you are likely to face the following challenges during the jury trial:

  • You will pay a higher legal cost because these trials take longer to be concluded.
  • The jury tends to be very strict on legal technicalities, which can hinder your case’s winning.
  • Even though some attorneys believe that you only need to convince the lead judge to win a trial, jurors can sharply disagree on various legal technicalities making it hard for your case to sail through.

Consulting a professional lawyer will help you decide whether a bench or jury trial will be most suitable for your case. . Remember, regardless of who determines your case, you’ll need good representation. When selecting a lawyer, make sure you do a background check to determine their reputation in handling similar cases.

What happens at a bench trial?

At a bench trial, there is no jury. The judge renders a verdict and decides who the winner of the case is.

Why would you have a bench trial?

Bench trials are generally faster as there is no jury selection.

What is the difference between a jury and a bench trial?

Jury trial allows you to present your case to the multiple every day people. Bench trial is presented to the judge.

How long do bench trials take?

Generally less than three hours unless multiple witnesses are required.

Can a judge set aside a verdict?

The judge can only set it aside if there is a legitimate reason to do so. If the jury made a clearly erroneous decision such as finding someone guilty even though the evidence clearly wasn’t sufficient.

Do bench trials have opening statements?

Yes, they do but its a bit different. In a jury trial, the opening statement is presenting the facts to the jury. In a bench trial the facts and law needs to be intermingled so that you can present your legal theories as applied to the case at hand.

What does the judge do in a jury trial?

Judge decides on what evidence can be shown to the jury. Judge is there to make sure that the process is fair and follows the law.

What’s the point of a judge if there’s a jury?

The judge makes sure that the process is fair and orderly and follows the law.

Does the whole jury have to agree?

In nearly all criminal cases, all jurrors must agree. Some states do not require a unaminous decision in civil cases

What happens if one juror says not guilty?

Then there is a mistrial and there can be a new trial. If all jurors agree that you are not guilty, the verdict stands and cannot be overturned by the judge, appealed or retried.

Can an acquittal be overturned?

In the United States, a finding of not guilty by bench or by jury trial cannot be overturned due to “double-jeopardy”.

Is there an exception to double jeopardy?

The only exception is if you were never in jeopardy. If the defendant bribes a judge or jury, there was never any jeopardy and the case can be retried. Scotland has two types of acquittals, not proven and not guilty. Not proven allows the case to be retried.

What must the prosecution prove to get a guilty verdict?

Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors must show that the evidence does not allow any other reasonable interpretation.

Do all court cases go to trial?

Only a small fraction of cases go to trial.