Criminal Cases: Jury vs. bench trial: Answers to common questions

Learn more about the differences between jury and bench trials. Find out how each may affect the outcome of a case.

When a person goes to court as a defendant in a case, he or she has the option to choose a jury or bench trial. The Tennessee courts must give this option because the right to a trial by jury is fundamental. Anyone who may have to make this choice should have a basic understanding of each option.

What is the difference between a jury and a bench trial?

A jury trial is where a jury hears the case, and a bench trial is where a judge hears the case. A jury is made up of people from the community or jurisdiction of the court. The jury will make the decision on conviction and may determine the penalty if they find the defendant guilty of certain serious offenses in Tennessee. In a bench trial, the judge has complete control and makes all decisions.

Which option is better?

This really depends on the case. There is a chance for the judge to learn about the case beforehand. He or she also has an expert understanding of the law. A jury may also hear about the case, but in choosing a jury the attorneys screen the individuals for bias. A judge gets to hear everything in the pretrial phase whereas a jury does not, but a judge may be more lenient with evidence inclusion.

The Jurist suggests that a bench trial may be the better option in a high-profile case because the jury pool may be tainted due to news coverage of the crime. In addition, if a case involves complex legal issues, a judge is better able to decipher them than a jury. However, a jury may be more emotional, which could be better in some cases. They also are not as familiar with the law, which could be a benefit. Finally, a judge may give less weight to past convictions where such things often do not sit well with juries.

Is the choice completely up to the defendant?

Since the right to a jury trial is in the Constitution, the assumption that the choice is only up to the defendant makes sense In Tennessee, a defendant is entitled to a jury trial unless it is waived in all criminal prosecutions except small offenses. However, in waiving a jury trial, the district attorney general must consent.

When does the defendant have to make the decision?

According to the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, a defendant may decide to go with a bench trial at any point up to the swearing in of the jury. However, typically the Court will ask in advance of trial whether the defendant wants a jury. Once the defendant waives his or her right to a jury trial, that ends that option. The waiver of a jury trial must be in writing, have the consent of the State, and have the approval of the Court.

If you are facing going to court as a defendant, you may want the assistance of an attorney, such as Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers. An attorney can help you to make the choice between a jury and a judge.