Jury Trials and Court Trials

When a criminal defendant chooses to take his case to trial, he can opt for one of two options: a jury trial or a court trial, also known as a bench trial.

Jury Trials

Defendant on trial talking to lawyer

In the criminal law system, a defendant has the constitutional right to be judged by his peers—what we call a jury trial. Juries are selected from a pool of eligible county residents and are supposed to be representative of the community at large. The original idea was that since the jury was formed from ordinary citizens, the jury would be the last line against tyranny and abuse by the government. In other words, if the government passed a law saying it was illegal to eat anything at anytime and a person was arrested for simply eating, the defendant could request a jury trial. The hope was that the jury would have the sense to refuse to convict the defendant of a ridiculous or tyrannical law. In so refusing, the jury would essentially "nullify" the laws it felt should not have been passed in the first place or which had outlived their usefulness. Historical examples of jury nullification include William Penn’s freedom of religion case and many underground railroad cases where people helped slaves escape to the north. In a nutshell, the jury was supposed to be another check and balance against all branches and levels of our government.

Today, jury nullification is strongly discouraged by courts. Courts routinely tell juries that they must follow the law that the judge tells them and convict the defendant if he violated the law regardless of what the jury thinks of the law. Law schools do not discuss jury nullification, and, if they do, they speak about it with disdain and reiterate what judges say—if the law is there and the defendant violated it, he must be found guilty.

Unfortunately, both the courts and law schools are incorrect in their view of jury nullification. Perhaps they feel that their "power" is in jeopardy if a jury can return a verdict of not guilty even when the defendant clearly violated a law. Who knows? Regardless, the court cannot question the jury’s verdict or the reason for it even if the court disagrees with the verdict. This fact alone allows juries to sometimes return not guilty verdicts despite a clear violation of the law.

Given that the jury can still exercise its discretion whether the court wants it to or not, jury trials are often times a better bet when choosing a form of trial. The jury will be more open to emotion and what "feels" right to them than a judge would be. In the majority of cases, a jury trial is the way to go when taking a case to trial.

Court Trials / Bench Trials

In contrast to jury trials, court trials (or bench trials) have the judge sitting in judgment of both the facts and the law. The judge has years of experience as Defendant and lawyer talking to judge at bench trial an attorney and as a judge, making him an impartial judge of the facts and the law. Unfortunately, that same dispassion can make a judge a bad choice in many cases. In other words, if your case relies on feelings or emotion to sway the trier of fact, you probably do not want a court trial. The judge will be much less likely to find a defendant not guilty based on emotion. The judge will take the emotion and "what feels right" into account when sentencing the defendant, however. But, the judge would do the same thing during sentencing following a jury trial conviction, too.

In deciding whether to have a judge preside over your trial as a fact-finder, your attorney will have to think about whether the case if very fact-driven or very law-driven. In law-driven cases, it makes sense to have a judge return a verdict because the law can be highly technical and hard for a jury to understand and if the jury misunderstands the law just a bit, it may return a mistaken verdict. On the other hand, for fact intensive cases, generally a jury is a better option.

As always, consult with your attorney before deciding to waive you right to a jury trial. Each case is different and only you and your attorney can decide which trial is right in your case.