When people think of a criminal trial, they often envision 12 jurors, a judge, and opposing attorneys making impassioned arguments about truth and justice.
While many trials play out this way, others move forward without one of these elements: a jury.
Even though the criminal justice system guarantees defendants the right to a trial by a jury, some opt to have their case decided by a judge instead. A bench trial — a case tried to a judge instead of a jury — is decidedly less dramatic and may be advantageous in certain circumstances.
In 2016, for example, three Baltimore police officers arrested in the death of Freddie Gray opted for a bench trial rather than a jury trial. All three were acquitted.
As with all aspects of the justice system, the decision to have a trial by judge or jury is not an easy one. Some defendants may benefit from power in numbers, while others may be better off playing to an audience of one. Here’s a look at both types of trials and what worked for defendants in some of the country’s most notable cases.
The jury trial has long been considered the bedrock of the criminal justice system. The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of their peers.
Most defendants who do not resolve their case through a plea bargain exercise this right. They would rather have 12 people (or six if it is a misdemeanor case in Texas) — instead of just one — view the evidence, determine witnesses’ credibility and decide their fate.
If one juror disagrees with the rest of the panel, a verdict can’t be returned. (Louisiana and Oregon are the exception, allowing non-unanimous verdicts.) Unanimous verdicts afford greater protection to the defendant and requires the prosecution to meet its burden of proof to the satisfaction of each and every juror.
Take the Cullen Davis, O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony trials – all were acquitted by 12 jurors who had reasonable doubt of their guilt during hugely high profile cases of the time. Juries interpret reasonable doubt differently and, in these cases, the jurors held prosecutors to very high standards, which worked in the defendants’ favor even though facts of each case were vastly different.
Although the majority of defendants choose a jury trial, there are circumstances in which the accused wants to take his case before a judge. Common reasons include expense, time and technical or legal issues.
Because the judge is both the finder of fact and ruler on matters of law and procedure in this scenario, bench trials move quicker than jury trials and are often a faster path to resolution. Not only is there no jury selection, but judges have years of courtroom experience so there is no need for a lesson on toxicology, DNA, or ballistics, for example. Of course, the less time it takes, the less expensive it will be for a defendant paying for a private attorney.
A bench trial may also be a good option in cases with complex technical or legal issues that a jury may find difficult to understand. Judges are attorneys and have full understanding of the law and how to apply the rules and standard of proof.
Bench trials may also be an appropriate choice for defendants accused of heinous crimes or who have a shocking appearance or long criminal records. Jurors are sometimes swayed by sympathy, anger or emotion and may find it hard to make a decision based on evidence and rules. Judges are trained to put feelings aside and follow the letter of the law.
In the Freddie Gray case, six officers were charged in connection with the detainee’s death, triggering protests and riots in Baltimore over how police treat minorities. After a jury deadlocked on whether to convict in the first officer’s trial, the second officer opted to put his fate solely in the hands of Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams, who was a former police misconduct officer with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. After the judge acquitted him due to insufficient evidence, the next two officers also elected to have bench trial and were acquitted as well. Prosecutors, in turn, dropped all charges in the remaining cases.
In a lengthy 38-page ruling on the last case, Judge Williams explained his reasons for the acquittal, including how the state failed to meet its burden.
A bench trial is not an option in every case. In Texas, for example, capital murder defendants facing the death penalty cannot choose a bench trial. It’s not even on the table. According to Article 1.13 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, defendants charged with any other offense, however, have the right to waive a jury trial as long as the prosecution and judge agree. In other words, if the prosecutor doesn’t go along with it, the defendant must proceed with a jury trial.
In Maryland, where the Freddie Gray murder trials were held, the decision to have a judge decide the case was solely up to the defendants. Prosecutors in that state have no say in the decision, an issue that has stirred debate and have some lawmakers there calling for change.
Regardless of the rules of each state, the decision whether to have a trial by judge or jury is an important one. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. About the only thing you can say for certain in any trial is that anything can happen.
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