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Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial

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If you are facing criminal charges, your case can go to trial before a jury or before a judge. When a judge oversees your case, it is known as a bench trial. Jury trials, which involve a 12-person panel, are much more common in the criminal justice system. 

There are several key differences between bench trials and jury trials. Different processes work best for different cases, so it is best to consult with a Washington criminal defense lawyer about which option is right for your situation.

What Is a Jury Trial?

During a jury trial, 12 individuals are appointed to hear evidence and legal arguments in your case. These individuals will be responsible for determining whether the prosecution has enough evidence to prove that you are guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In order for a jury to decide if you are guilty or not guilty, they must come to a unanimous decision.

In a jury trial, the case is overseen by a judge—but the judge is not responsible for determining a verdict in the case. Instead, he or she is responsible for overseeing procedural and evidentiary issues. These may include what evidence can be used at trial, which witnesses are allowed to testify, and what witnesses can testify about on the stand.

What Is a Bench Trial?

During a bench trial, there is no jury. Instead, the judge is responsible for ruling on the procedural and evidentiary issues and determining whether you are guilty or not guilty of the crime. 

Bench trials are a little less formal than a jury trial, but the process is very similar. The judge will examine the evidence and hear the legal arguments from both parties, and eventually issue a ruling in your case.

As a defendant, you have the constitutional right to a jury trial. However, you do not have the right to a bench trial. Instead, you can waive your right to a jury trial if it is in your best interest as a defendant. However, the prosecutor may object, or the judge may reject the waiver; in this situation, your case will go in front of a jury.

Which Option Is Better for Your Case?

When deciding between a bench trial versus a jury trial, are many considerations that you will need to make. Each option brings its own advantages and disadvantages, such as the following:

  • A bench trial typically finishes faster than a jury trial, as the case does not involve jury selection or jury instructions.
  • During a jury trial, more people oversee the case and no one person is responsible for making all of the decisions. The prosecutor has to convince more people of the defendant’s guilt.
  • A judge will have more familiarity with legal rules and procedures compared to a jury. Thus, a bench trial may be a better choice than a jury trial, where the panel may decide on issues based on their emotional response.
  • The judge will know all of the evidence in a case, regardless of whether it is admissible or not. During a jury trial, the jury will not know this evidence, making it easier to disregard.

If you are facing criminal charges, an attorney can help you decide if a jury or bench trial is right for your case. Contact a Tacoma criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your situation and develop a case strategy.

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