If your criminal case in Alabama goes to trial, you have the right to either a trial by judge or jury. A jury trial is what you typically see on TV - where a jury listens to the facts and arguments and decides whether you are guilty or not. A trial by judge, however, is what's known as a bench trial. The judge listens to the facts, knows the law, and decides the case. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, which can make it confusing for a defendant who realizes they have a choice in the matter.
At Segal and Segal, our criminal defense attorney based in Huntsville and Madison County will review the facts and law of your case, and if a bench trial makes more sense, we will advise you of the same, outlining clearly the pros and cons. We want our clients to be informed so that they can make a decision with which they are comfortable. Contact us today at (256) 533-4529 to schedule a free consultation and to get a smart defense.
What is a Bench Trial?
A bench trial is one of two different types of trials you can have in a criminal case. The other type is a jury trial.
In a bench trial, a judge hears the evidence, determines the facts, considers the legal issues that arise, and decides whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. There is no jury involved in a bench trial.
The same procedural and evidentiary rules apply to bench trials as they do to jury trials. In both cases, the prosecution must prove the charge against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. In a jury trial, the jurors decide whether the prosecution has achieved this because they are the fact finders, whereas, in a bench trial, fact-finding becomes part of the judge's role.
What are the Benefits of a Bench Trial in Alabama?
There are several advantages to a bench trial, depending on the circumstances of a case.
Bench trials generally lead to a quicker resolution. This is because there is no jury selection process, and the court doesn't have to explain the relevant law to a jury. A bench trial flows more smoothly, as a judge can discuss any issues with the parties as they arise, rather than sending the jury out each time.
Though this is an advantage, it is worth noting that the advantage is dependent on your unique situation. There is a caveat to efficiency. Some defendants assume a bench trial is better because of the time factor – after all, they just want to get back to their lives. This line of reasoning, however, may lead you in the wrong direction. Efficiency is better in some respects, but in others, it may not.
More neutral decision maker
A defendant may elect for a bench trial because judges can apply the law in a more neutral, dispassionate way. Given their professional experience, they can set aside any potential biases. For example, a bench trial may be preferable if the case is high-profile and has attracted wide press coverage.
A judge can also set aside any potentially damaging, inadmissible information that may arise during a trial. It can be more difficult for jurors to disregard this information once they have heard it, even when they're told to do so.
Bench trials are also considered more predictable. The parties can understand a judge's position on a legal issue before the trial starts based on previous rulings. This is especially the case if the same judge hears and decides any pretrial motions, as well as the trial. In comparison, the only opportunity to gauge a juror's position is during voir dire.
Complex legal arguments
A bench trial may be preferable where a case involves technical legal arguments. A judge has expert knowledge of the law and can understand and apply complex legal concepts. A jury in the same case may find it more challenging to do so.
What are the Disadvantages of a Bench Trial in Alabama
Again, the disadvantages are dependent on the case itself. Two significant disadvantages, however, should make you think twice about a bench trial in most criminal situations.
- Only the judge decides as opposed to a 12-member jury. Thus, your fate rests in one set of hands versus 12 sets of hands. In a jury trial, if one person disagrees and believes you are innocent, that may be all you need for a hung jury. In a bench trial, the prosecutor only needs to convince one person that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- The judge is familiar with all the evidence. A judge may be able to be unbiased, but that only goes so far. It is notable to keep in mind that they are the ultimate deciders on what evidence is admitted. There may be prejudicial or unreliable evidence or evidence obtained unlawfully, and because of any of the latter, the evidence is excluded. When you are defending yourself before a jury, this is important because they may never know about this evidence, but the judge knows everything there is to know about the evidence. No matter how the judge may try, that evidence can impact the final outcome.
Which Types of Criminal Cases are Best for Bench Trials?
A bench trial has pros and cons, just as there are for jury trials. More likely than not, if you have been charged with a crime, a jury trial is your best option. For less serious offenses, like traffic violations, some juvenile offenses, or misdemeanor offenses, a bench trial makes sense. In some jurisdictions, a bench trial is automatic for misdemeanor offenses (where the potential sentence is one year or less imprisonment).
On the other hand, for more serious offenses, a defendant can waive their constitutional right to a jury trial and ask for a bench trial. This decision usually requires the agreement of the court and prosecution, too. Regardless of the alleged criminal activity, it is always best to seek advice from a competent criminal defense attorney before waiving a jury trial.
Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney in Huntsville and Madison County Today
Many factors exist when deciding to opt for a bench trial in Alabama. Just keep in mind that waiving your constitutional right to a jury trial is a nuanced issue that requires thoughtful analysis of the facts and law.
At Segal and Segal, our criminal defense attorneys in Huntsville and Madison County will identify the relevant factors, legal issues, potential defenses, and defense strategy so you can make the best tactical decision in your case. Fill out an online submission form or call us at (256) 533-4529 for a free consultation.