Jury Trial vs. Bench Trial, Which is Best and Why?

Having to go to court is a very intimidating experience — one that can seem very overwhelming. While hiring a good criminal defense lawyer can go a long way towards alleviating most of the stress associated with going to court on pending criminal charges, a defendant who is taking their case to trial is still faced with the often daunting decision as to what kind of trial they should have; should it be a jury trial or bench trial? The decision as to what trial the defendant wishes to have is his, and his alone to make.

The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with a basic understanding of the differences between a jury trial and a bench trial and what I perceive as the pros and cons of either trial in my experience as a trial attorney. It is still strongly advised that you consult with and retain an experienced criminal attorney when facing criminal charges. Criminal Defense and trial work is more of an art than a science. It requires an understanding of the psychology of juries and the personalities of the various judges that could preside over a bench trial. Only an attorney with extensive experience in the area of criminal defense, one who has actually taken cases to trial, will have an adequate understanding of how the criminal charge, facts of the case, and the appearance and demeanor of the defendant will play with a jury.

A jury trial is where a jury makes a finding of fact based on the evidence presented by the opposing parties at trial. In essence, the jury is responsible for listening to a dispute, evaluating the evidence presented, deciding on the facts, and making a decision in accordance with the rules of law and their jury instructions. Typically, a jury is comprised of 12 people and one alternate. Typically, the jury only determines guilt, but the actual penalty is set by the judge. A jury is responsible for finding the facts of the case, whereas the judge determines the law (i.e. the judge determines how the laws of evidence and procedure will be applied during the trial).

In the United States, because jury trials tend to be more high profile in nature, the general public tends to overestimate the frequency of jury trials. It is simply a fact that the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved via a plea agreement. There have been many factors that have led to the prevalence of plea agreements. One factor that has a great influence in discouraging trials is the advent of mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences place a defendant in a position where the potential penalties for going to trial and losing often far outweigh the sentence he can achieve by a reduction in charges via a negotiation with the prosecution.

In the United States per Article Three of the United States Constitution, every person accused of a crime punishable by incarceration for more than six months has a constitutional right to a trial by jury. Article Three States in part, “The Trial of all Crimes…shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” The right to a trial by jury was expanded with the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Both provisions were made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Historically, in the United States, the jury trial was viewed as check on the power of the government by allowing members of the community to decide the fate of the defendant.

Most states in their state constitutions have provided for jury trials in matters that are jailable for periods of incarceration less than six months and in Illinois the right has been expanded to encompass even minor traffic matters such as speeding tickets. In criminal cases, a jury’s verdict must be unanimous or a mistrial is declared and the defendant may be subjected to a second trial.

A Bench Trial or Judge Trial is a trial before a judge without a jury. The judge decides questions of fact as well as questions of law. Because the right to a trial by jury is considered a fundamental right, a defendant must waive his right to a jury in order to have a trial by the judge in a criminal case. In a bench trial, one person, not twelve, decides the fate of the defendant.

The “pros” of a jury trial are that the State must convince 12 people to unanimously find a defendant guilty, whereas, in a bench trial, the State need only convince one person, the judge, as to the defendant’s guilt. However, one of the pitfalls of jury trials is that if the crime charged is of a particularly emotional nature, a defendant risks being convicted not on the evidence, but because the jury “thinks” he is guilty or doesn’t like the defendant. It is my professional opinion that many jurors base their decisions on their emotions and not on the actual evidence or lack of evidence of guilt. Whereas, because the judge is a legal professional who has been trained to base decisions solely based on the evidence, or lack of evidence, the likely-hood of being convicted based on emotions or prejudices is smaller in my opinion. Further, at a bench trial an attorney can submit appellate case law to bolster an argument for an acquittal. As a trial attorney, I have been very successful at bench trials and have often utilized appellate cases to assist the court to find my client not guilty under factual circumstances that I was certain a jury would have found my client guilty under.

I hope that after reading this you have a better understanding of the differences between jury and bench trials, as well as, some of the “pros” and “cons” of the two types of trials.


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