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Judge vs. Jury Trials

When a case goes to trial, the parties sometimes have a choice between a bench trial or a jury trial. Not all types of cases have this option. Small claims and juvenile criminal cases do not have jury trials.

In a criminal case, the defendant has the right to waive a jury trial, but the state must agree if the defendant wants a bench trial. If a defendant prefers a bench trial, the state will accept it.

There are important differences between bench and jury trials, whether you represent yourself or have an attorney. Before you decide between the types of trials, keep some other legal issues in mind.

Court Cases: Civil vs. Criminal

Deciding between a bench trial and a jury trial can depend on what you must prove in the case.

In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proof. Whether the case is a felony or a misdemeanor, the prosecution must show the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high bar. A criminal defense attorney has no burden of proof but must refute elements of the prosecution's case.

In a civil trial, the plaintiff has the burden of proof. The standard is a "preponderance of evidence," meaning more likely than not, or about 51%. A civil defense lawyer may need to disprove parts of the plaintiff's case and prove the defendant's side of the case.

Bench Trials

In a bench trial, the judge decides the facts of the case. Otherwise, the case proceeds just as it would in a jury trial. Self-representing parties may find it easier to present a case before a judge than a jury because they will have fewer eyes watching them.

In a bench trial, you avoid jury selection (voir dire), making an opening statement before a jury, and closing arguments for the jurors. These can be intimidating for someone unfamiliar with court procedures.

The advantages of a bench trial are:

  • Judges know the law. There is less need to walk judges through every step of a civil case or criminal trial since they know how attorneys establish their cases.
  • Judges are less likely to be biased. Especially in civil cases, judges have little reason to be predisposed to one side or the other. Judges must put aside personal opinions and focus on the facts in the case.
  • Bench trials go faster. Since judges need less explanation, civil litigation moves more quickly when presented to a judge than when presented to a jury.

The downsides to a bench trial are:

  • Judges know all the law. Although judges may loosen rules of evidence in a bench trial, they will not abandon them. They give pro se litigants what help they can in court but will not bend the rules of criminal or civil procedure.
  • Criminal defendants may feel very alone in a bench trial. Judges often begin in the prosecutor's or DA's office. With police, prosecutors, and the judge, a pro se criminal defendant must be sure of the outcome if they plan to defend themselves.

Jury Trials

In a jury trial, the jury selection process winnows out six to 12 jurors, plus alternates, to decide your case. Jury selection, or voir dire, is time-consuming in the jury trial process. Self-represented litigants should get legal advice during voir dire since it is a complicated procedure for the layperson.

The advantages of a trial by jury include:

  • Jurors don't know all the rules. Although the judge and opposing counsel can prevent improper evidence and questions from getting through, they cannot catch all of them.
  • Jurors listen to their emotions. In civil trials, especially personal injury cases, having a sympathetic jury can be helpful for pro se litigants.

The disadvantages for some defendants include:

  • Jurors can react to emotions or bias. Criminal defendants charged with gruesome crimes may fare poorly with juries, as may unsympathetic parties in civil cases, such as corporations.
  • Jurors don't know the law. They must have legal issues explained in careful detail, a task often beyond the ability of pro se litigants.
  • The court process for jury trials includes voir dire at the beginning and jury instructions at the end. These are legally dense procedures that need help from a professional.

Jury trials are not a guaranteed part of the civil court process. In a civil trial, at least one party must pay for the jurors and make the initial deposit on the case. In a criminal matter, the state pays for the jurors. The courts presume defendants want a jury trial, and defendants must waive their right to a jury. The judge or the state can deny the waiver because a jury trial is so important in a criminal case.

When You Need an Attorney

If you need help understanding the legal process and rules of evidence, you should have an attorney represent you at trial. You should have an attorney in any court case where your liberty is at stake. If you have legal questions about a civil or criminal case and need a trial lawyer, contact a criminal or civil attorney.

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