What is the bench trial process?

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What is a Bench Trial?

In a criminal proceeding in state court, a defendant may face a jury trial or a bench trial. A jury trial is a trial before a jury of 6 or 12 people who, after hearing the evidence and legal arguments, decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charges against him. At a jury trial, the judge must rule on the procedural and evidentiary issues such as who can testify, what witnesses can testify about, and what documents or physical evidence the jury can consider. At a bench trial, the judge makes the same procedural decisions, hears the evidence, and decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

A Jury Trial or a Bench Trial?

In most states, a defendant is entitled to a jury trial if he faces the possibility of more than six months in jail. If you are charged with simple assault, for instance, and the possible penalty is only 30 days in jail, you would not be entitled to a jury trial. Your case will be tried at a bench trial. (For further explanation, see The Right to Trial by Jury.)

In federal court, defendants are entitled to a jury trial for any felony and any charge that carries a potential jail sentence, including petty misdemeanors and infractions. If the judge states before trial that he will not impose any jail or prison time, then the defendant no longer is entitled to a jury trial and will have a bench trial.

Even when the defendant is entitled to a jury trial, the defendant can choose instead to have a bench trial. The following are some advantages to a bench trial, from the defendant’s perspective.

  • A quicker resolution. A bench trial is usually a quicker way to complete a case because it can be scheduled sooner and does not require jury selection and jury instructions, which make the trial process last much longer.
  • Dealing with irrelevant and damaging information. If information will come out at trial that puts the defendant in a bad light, but which is technically irrelevant to the charge, a judge might be more neutral than a jury and better able to set that aside in deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. For example, the witnesses and other information might indicate that a defendant is a gang member or has gang affiliations, even though the alleged crime is not gang related. This could raise concerns that a jury made up of members of the public would automatically view the defendant as a criminal and be more likely to convict him.
  • Applying the rules. If the case turns on applying a complex legal rule to the facts of the case, some attorneys and legal experts believe juries will have difficulty with the process or even ignore the rule, and that a bench trial might be a better choice. Some experts also believe that juries tend to decide issues on emotion rather than applying the legal rules they’ve been instructed to use.

On the other hand, choosing a bench trial instead of a jury trial carries risks for a defendant.

  • One person decides. At a bench trial, the prosecutor has to convince only one person of a defendant’s guilt, while at a jury trial he must convince all 6 or 12 people. Put another way, the defendant may “win” if only one juror holds out for acquittal (leading to a mistrial and perhaps a good plea bargain or a dismissal of the charges).
  • The judge knows all the evidence. At either a jury or bench trial, the judge decides what evidence will be admitted. Prejudicial, irrelevant, or untrustworthy evidence is excluded, and ideally the jury never hears it. But at a bench trial, where the judge is the jury, it might be hard for the judge to disregard damaging evidence that is technically inadmissible, no matter how conscientious the judge might be.
  • The judge will follow the rules. In some cases, the defense strategy is to hope that the jury will notfollow the rules and will acquit on emotional or political grounds instead. For example, if the case has been “overcharged” (heavy charges for a minor offense), the defendant is sympathetic, the charges are unpopular (such as marijuana use or medical use), or the prosecutor is heavy handed or a bully, the jury might “Just say no.” A judge is not likely to rebel in this way. 
  • Pressure to convict. Some experts question the neutrality of judges when deciding whether a defendant is guilty. Critics (or cynics) suspect that, because they hold public office and may have to stand for re-election, judges may be tempted to please the public’s perceived desire for conviction.

Procedure at a Bench Trial

As in a jury trial, the prosecutor in a bench trial must present evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime(s) charged. The prosecutor must call witnesses to testify, present any physical evidence such as photographs, clothing, or results of tests like a breath or blood alcohol test in a DUI case, and argue any legal issues. The defense can cross-examine the state’s witnesses and argue to the court that the prosecutor should not be able to present certain evidence, if appropriate. The defendant also is entitled to call witnesses, present evidence, and testify on his own behalf. If you are a defendant in a criminal case, an attorney can assist you in deciding whether your testimony can help your case and prepare you for cross-examination by the prosecutor.

Whether your trial is a bench or a jury trial, the process followed during the trial should be the same and, if you are convicted, you are entitled to appeal your conviction to a higher court. The court is required to follow the same rules of evidence and procedure at every trial. The judge cannot rule differently in a bench trial than he would in a jury trial. Because a jury is not present, a bench trial may be a bit less formal than a jury trial, but all rulings must be consistent.

The Value of Legal Representation

If you are facing criminal charges and need to decide between a bench or jury trial, your best option is to be represented by counsel as early as possible in the criminal process. A local attorney who has experience in the court in which your case is being tried can identify the specific advantages or disadvantages to a bench trial or jury trial in that court, give you meaningful advice about your options, and represent you throughout your entire case.

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