Under the Sixth Amendment, every citizen of the United States is entitled to have a trial by a jury of his or her peers if accused of a crime. But is it the right choice? Is it better for a judge or a jury to decide your fate?
A trial in which a judge decides the case is called a Bench Trial. If your case involves complicated legal issues, it may be better to have a judge, who understands the complexities of the law, decide your case. A bench trial is less time-consuming than a jury trial because there is no jury selection or jury instructions, and because there is less focus on court procedures, so if you’ve decided to represent yourself, it may be beneficial to opt for a bench trial.
Judges are usually more predictable than juries, however, some judges have been known to be biased in certain cases, so when deciding on which trial is best, ask an attorney. He or she may be familiar with the history of verdicts for the judge trying your case, and if there are biases that could affect the outcome of your case, you should consider a jury trial.
Even in a bench trial, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s just up to the judge to decide whether or not it was proven.
A jury usually consists of 12 jurors and several alternates. If your case involves more emotional issues, you may want to consider a jury trial. While judges prefer facts, juries tend to want a compelling story and might be more sympathetic to the circumstances of your case. They may be able to put themselves in your shoes, whereas a judge will remain firmly planted in his or her own. You may get jurors who have been or know people who have been in your situation. A judge may only see the crime, where a jury may see the person.
A jury trial is more time-consuming because it involves opening and closing statements and jury selection and there’s a stricter adherence to court procedures. This may or may not be beneficial to your case.
Jury instructions sometimes offer grounds for appeal if you are convicted. An appellate lawyer could argue that there was reversible error in the instructions given by the judge.
If you’ve been arrested for a crime that typically carries a jail term of 6 months or less or imposes less than a $5,000 fine, a jury trial is usually not an option. If you are entitled to a jury trial, you must have a jury trial unless you waive this right in writing, the government consents, and the court approves it.
If you’ve decided to represent yourself, it may be better to select a bench trial. You don’t have to worry about opening or closing arguments and the judge is usually more tolerant as far as court procedure is concerned. A judge understands that you won’t always know what to do and will focus on the facts to make a decision, but a jury may see this as ineptitude.
Because you may not have a clear understanding of the law, representing yourself almost always puts you at a disadvantage so this option should be considered carefully. Even if you have decided to represent yourself, it’s important that you discuss your case with an attorney before deciding whether you want a bench or a jury trial. An attorney will be able to tell you the advantages and disadvantages as they pertain to your case and help you make the choice that will most beneficial to you.