What is A Bench Trial?

If you’ve ever seen a courtroom procedural on television or at the movies, you are likely familiar with a jury trial. You may have even served jury duty yourself.

Any defendant charged with a criminal offense can request a jury trial in which a stipulated number of ordinary US citizens arrive at a final verdict after extensive courtroom proceedings under the leadership of a judge. However, defendants can also waive their right to a jury trial and agree to a bench trial. In a bench trial, the judge not only presides over the trial but also delivers the verdict.

The Pros and Cons of a Jury Trial

They are the bedrock of the US justice system, but a jury trial isn’t mandatory for all criminal prosecution cases. One of the key advantages of pursuing a jury trial is the considerable role that your attorney can play in the jury selection process.

Also known as “voir dire,” the jury selection process gives both the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney the right to question jurors to determine their ability to decide the case with impartiality. Typically, the attorneys can disqualify a certain number of jurors for any reason and argue the case for disqualifying others before the judge.

Although the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees “a speedy and public trial” to all criminal defendants, the term “speedy” is vague to say the least. In fact, the sheer length of the jury trial process is one of its most pronounced drawbacks. Juries are also generally less predictable than judges.

The Pros and Cons of a Bench Trial

By eliminating many of the steps and complications involved with a jury trial, bench trials are typically far more expedient. Many times, the judge, prosecution, and defense can immediately agree on a point of law. In a bench trial, these legal professionals can typically establish these agreements and then move on rapidly. In a jury trial, they must take the time to explain each procedural rule and make every issue explicitly clear to each jury member.

The presence of the jury slows down operations in other ways. First and foremost, there is no need to select a jury and go through the entire voir dire process. Secondly, there is no need to show exhibits to the jury, deliver opening arguments to them, or dismiss them when attorneys approach the bench to speak privately with the judge. Lastly, attorneys can stipulate to evident facts during a bench trial rather than introducing and cross-examining unnecessary testimony.

Attorneys and their clients may want to streamline a trial for any number of reasons. It is important to note that a complex case that goes on indefinitely will likely cost a considerable amount of money.

The main reason to choose a bench trial over a jury trial, however, is purely strategic. In some cases, you and/or your attorney may have reason to believe that a judge is simply more likely to find you not guilty. These cases may arise when the judge has key opinions about relevant issues on record, when the experience of the prosecuting attorney seems to favor a bench trial, or when the judge may simply appreciate a more straightforward and less costly legal approach.

bench trial in the courtroom

For More Information

If you have questions about the advantages and disadvantages of bench trials and jury trials, contact a knowledgeable representative of ATAC Law today. A full-service criminal defense firm based in Las Vegas, Nevada, it has a long reputation of helping clients facing series felony charges.