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All You Need to Know About Bench Trial

what is a bench trial

The word ‘Bench’ in the field of law is about a Judge, so a Bench trial is a trial conducted by a Judge, unlike a jury trial. 

Bench trial refers to the prosecution that does not involve a jury but a judge who determines the facts and applies the law. Jury trials are more common and familiar in the world of criminal justice. But Bench trials are also gaining more popularity. A layman should understand the difference between a jury trial and a bench trial. The bench trial might be preferable in specific cases where counsel may think a judge is more likely to give judgment in the favor of the defense.

Right to bench trial? 

A jury trial is a constitutional right of every citizen but a bench trial is not a constitutional right. In American law, a jury trial is given for maximum criminal cases as it is provided under the Sixth Amendment and one cannot waive his/ her right without specific conditions.

In the federal judiciary system, if a defendant is authorized a jury trial, the trial must be by jury unless specific terms as given under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

  • The defendant relinquishes a jury trial in writing 
  • The government agrees
  • Approved by the court.

In various state court systems, jury trial waivers may differ by jurisdiction. 

A defendant may waive (give up) his right to a jury trial, but if the prosecutor objects or if the judge rejects the defendant’s waiver, the prosecution will go to a jury. 

Jury Trial Vs Bench Trial

What happens during a jury trial?

In a jury trial, a board of 12 jurors examines the evidence presented and listens to witness testimony, acting as fact finders in weighing the merits of each side in the case. In criminal proceedings, a guilty verdict usually requires unanimous agreement, and only one-third of states require unanimity of jurors in civil judgments.
In each case, the presiding judge rules on procedural matters such as the rules regarding evidence, observe testimony, and gives instructions to the jury based on the applicable law(s) before their discussion. In a jury trial, it is up to the jurors to decide questions of fact, while questions of law are up to the judge’s preference. 

For illustration, in a jury trial of a drunk and drive case, questions of fact that the jury must decide may include: 

  1. Was the defendant inebriated? 
  2. Did the defendant have bloodshot eyes? 
  3. Did the defendant have slurred speech?

In the same drunk and drive case, the question of law left to the judge would be, “did the prosecutor prove that the defendant was intoxicated as defined by applicable state law?” At trial, the judge would rule on both factual and legal issues.

What happens during a bench trial? 

Bench trials are similar to jury trials in that the prosecutor must present evidence that proves the accused guilty of the crimes charged. The difference is that instead of proposing it to the jurors, they express it to the judge. 

Evidence is submitted, witnesses testify, and all legal issues contend during the trial. The defendant’s defense attorney may cross-examine witnesses and also present their witnesses. 

The court has to follow the same rules of evidence and procedure in every trial, and a judge cannot rule differently than he would in a jury trial. There is a possibility that the bench trial may be a little less formal since there is no jury, but both with a jury and a bench trial, the process is the same. If the accused is found guilty, he has the right to appeal the verdict to a higher court.


Advantages of a Bench trial 

  • A Quicker resolution: A trial is usually a faster way to finish a case. It can be scheduled earlier and does not require jury selection or jury instructions, which makes the trial process much longer. 
  • Fencing irrelevant and damaging information: In some trials, information may emerge that puts the defendant in a bad light. Even if the information is technically unrelated to the charge and the judge instructs the jury not to consider it, jurors may have complications setting aside information.
    A judge can be more neutral than a jury and can generously focus only on information relevant to the case.
    For example, witnesses and other information may indicate that the defendant is a gang member or has gang affiliation, even though the alleged crime is not gang-related. Any gang connection that gains scrutiny raises concerns that the jury might see the defendant as a criminal and be more likely to find them guilty.
  • Application of the rules: If the case turns on applying a complex law to the facts of the case, some lawyers and legal experts worry that jurors might struggle with the process or even ignore the rule. A trial with an informed judge versed in the laws may be a better option here. Several professionals also think that juries tend to determine cases based on emotion rather than applying the legal rules.

The Disadvantages of a Bench trial

  • One person decides: In a trial, the prosecutor only has to convince one person of the defendant’s guilt, but, in a jury trial, the burden increases to convince all 12 jurors. In other words, the defendant can “win” if only one juror seeks acquittal (resulting in a mistrial and possibly a good plea bargain or dismissal of the charges)
  • The judge knows all the evidence: In a jury trial, the judge decides what evidence will get admitted. Prejudiced, irrelevant, or unreliable evidence is excluded and ideally never heard by the jury. But in a bench trial, it can be difficult for a judge to ignore irrelevant pieces of evidence no matter how conscientious the judge may be.
  • The judge will follow the rules. In some cases, the defense thinks that the jury may not follow the rules and rather acquit for emotional or political reasons.
    For instance, if the case was “overloaded” (hefty charges for a lesser crime), the penalties are unpopular, or the prosecutor is stubborn, the jury could respond negatively.
  • Pressure to convict. Several experts question the neutrality of judges in giving their judgments. Critics suspect that since they hold public office they may have to keep up for re-election, judges please the public’s perceived desire for conviction.


Conclusion

A trial by a judge alone is called a bench trial. Every American citizen has a constitutional right to a jury trial, but a bench trial is granted only at the court’s discretion. A case is presented to a judge instead of jurors in a bench trial. There are several pros and cons of bench trials depending upon the particular case. Courts and counsel may prefer bench trials over jury trials as they can be more efficient and easier to navigate, as judges act as both finders of facts and give their ruling. However, the council must carefully assess all the factors before pursuing a bench trial as it may substantially impact the procedure and outcome.

FAQs

Who decides whether to approve a bench trial or not?

The court approves the bench trial, and if the prosecutor objects or the court disapproves, the prosecution will go to the jury.

Is bench trial better?

Bench trials can be better in specific cases as judges may be impartial. The prosecution is solved quicker than a jury trial.

Do I have the right to a bench trial in criminal cases?

An accused person of felony or misdemeanor has the right to a jury trial. However, the defendant may waive their right to a jury trial. The court has to approve the bench trial.

Can I appeal a bench trial decision?

Yes, the defendant can appeal the judge’s sentence, and the appellate court can assess the subordinate court’s decision and give its ruling.

Can a judge question a witness at the time of trial?

The jury trial and bench trial process are the same, and the judge can question the witness.