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What Is the Difference Between a Jury and a Bench Trial?

A jury of your peers renders a decision on guilt in a jury trial while the judge has that task in a bench trial. Each type of trial has its advantages and risks. Bench and jury trials are used in criminal and civil courts.

A recent example in Wisconsin is a Kenosha man who waived his right to a jury trial in November 2021. He is charged with threatening to kill a woman and her co-workers.

At the Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella, we evaluate every detail of a case to advise our criminal defense clients whether a bench trial or jury trial may be in their best interests.

Jury Trial Is the Default in Criminal Cases

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides most – but not all – defendants the right to a jury trial. In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that defendants have a constitutional right to a jury trial only in "serious" criminal cases.

Jury trials are the default in criminal cases before the circuit court. The jury consists of 12 members of the community of the county where the case is charged. Jury members are chosen from a pool of randomly selected residents. The prosecutors and defense counsel ask potential jurors questions. Through this process called voir dire, the criminal defense attorney aims to eliminate people he believes will be biased against his client.

The seated jury reviews the evidence and listens to testimony. At the end of the trial, the jury deliberates to determine whether the state met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as to each element of the charged offense.

Advantages of a jury trial for a defendant include the following:

  • The jury must come to a unanimous verdict.
  • The jury may be persuaded by a compelling story.
  • A hung jury can lead to a mistrial.
  • The state may discontinue its prosecution after a mistrial or offer a plea deal.

The emotions of the jurors can benefit the defendant in certain cases. Those same emotions can be a disadvantage if the case relies heavily on the subtleties of the law. Jurors may not follow the law as would a judge. Jury trials are also typically more time-consuming than bench trials.

Bench Trial Must Be Approved by Both Sides

A criminal defendant may waive the right to a jury trial. There is no guarantee the request will be granted. If the prosecutor objects, the trial will go before a jury.

A bench trial, also called a court trial, takes place in front of a judge only. Bench trials follow the same rules of evidence, criminal procedure, and standards. There is no jury present, and the judge determines guilt or innocence. Voir dire is not applicable, so bench trials usually take less time than jury trials. The judge must still follow the law set forth in the applicable jury instructions.

Bench trials have advantages for certain cases:

  • Bench trials take less time than jury trials.
  • Jurors may be tainted by news coverage of high-profile cases.
  • Legal technicalities are better understood by a judge.
  • Jurors may assume guilt in some sensitive cases like sex crimes.

The potential advantages must be weighed against the fact that the judge alone will determine the fate of the defendant.

Bench trials are the standard in municipal court where ordinance violations are tried. These violations include traffic offenses, disorderly conduct, animal control violations, and first-time drunk driving. The municipal court only conducts bench trials. The case is decided by the judge. An exception to that rule is first-time OWI. A person charged with their first drunk-driving offense can request the case be heard by a jury in circuit court. There are advantages and disadvantages to having a first-offense OWI case removed to the circuit court. 

Aggressive Legal Defense for Jury or Bench Trials

From misdemeanors to felonies, the quality of criminal defense counsel can determine the trajectory of a defendant’s life. Attorney Cherella couples his extensive defense experience with three years as a Milwaukee prosecutor. Seeing a case from both sides provides insights not found at other law firms.

Learn more about how we fight for our clients in the Milwaukee area. Schedule a consultation by calling (414) 882-8382.