When you're charged with a crime, you have a constitutional right to be tried by a jury of your peers. This right is provided in Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution and guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
The Sixth Amendment says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
This right is also preserved in Article I, Section 16 of the State Constitution of California. However, there may be times when it's in your best interest to waive your right to a jury trial, whether in favor of a bench trial, where a judge decides your verdict or as part of a plea deal.
There is no predetermined set of rules or guidelines for deciding whether to waive your right to a trial by jury; these decisions are made between you and your attorney depending on the facts of the case. However, there are situations where an attorney is likely to advise you in one direction.
Sometimes, in a criminal case, the defendant might want to waive their right to a jury trial and instead have a bench trial where the judge alone decides guilt or innocence.
For example, perhaps the judge has a reputation for leniency, or the case has made national news. Maybe it's a particularly violent crime, or their appearance would not be favorable for a jury.
Perhaps the defendant is seeking to resolve the case as quickly as possible, or they just want to plead guilty or not contest the criminal charges as part of a plea agreement with the prosecutor, meaning the case would proceed directly to a sentencing hearing.
Defendants can only waive their right to a jury trial if the waiver is done voluntarily and intelligently. Also, under federal and state laws, defendants are not always automatically granted jury trial rights. For example, the right might not apply to crimes with a sentence of less than six months.
What's the Difference Between a Jury and a Bench Trial?
A jury trial and a bench trial are two distinct types of legal proceedings that can significantly impact the course and outcome of a case. In a jury trial, a group of 12 impartial peers forms the jury, which is responsible for evaluating the evidence and determining the facts of the case.
The judge's role in a jury trial is to preside over the process, make rulings on legal matters, and guide the jury on the applicable law.
Attorneys for the prosecution and the defense must agree on juror selections, and in criminal cases, the jury must be unanimous in arriving at their verdict, whether guilty or not guilty. Otherwise, it's considered a "hung jury," and a mistrial must be declared.
Conversely, a bench trial involves no jury. Instead, the judge assumes a dual role, serving as both the arbiter of law and the determiner of facts. This means the judge makes legal rulings, assesses the evidence, and decides the verdict. The choice between a jury trial and a bench trial requires strategic consideration, considering the nature of the case, its complexity, and the potential influence of public opinion.
What Are the Advantages of Waiving a Jury Trial?
It might be advantageous for defendants to waive their right to a jury trial for several reasons. These include the following:
- Imperviousness to Public Sentiment: In high-profile or contentious cases, opting for a bench trial can circumvent the potential influence of public opinion on a jury. Judges must base their decisions solely on the law and the evidence presented, irrespective of public sentiment. This may be especially important in cases involving particularly egregious or violent crimes where it may be difficult for jurors to be impartial.
- Efficient Resolution: Bench trials typically conclude more swiftly than their jury counterparts. By eliminating the processes of jury selection, instruction, and deliberation, they facilitate a more expedient resolution of the case.
- Cost-Efficiency: The shorter duration of bench trials often translates to reduced court costs and attorney fees, making them a more cost-effective choice than jury trials.
- Predictable Outcomes: Judges' decisions are generally more predictable than those of a jury, in which emotions or personal biases can sway. If, for example, you're assigned a judge with a record of showing leniency for mitigating circumstances, your attorney might recommend waiving the jury trial.
- Confidentiality: Bench trials are generally more private than jury trials. If a party wants to keep details of the case out of the public eye as much as possible, waiving the right to a jury trial might be a strategic decision.
- Appearance: Sometimes, a defendant's physical appearance (tattoos, etc.) might make them look like a criminal to a jury, which could cause them to jump to a conclusion of guilt immediately if they just appear to have a criminal history.
What Are the Disadvantages of Waiving a Jury Trial?
In other situations, waiving your right to a jury trial might not work in your best interests. These include the following:
- Loss of Peer Review: By waiving a jury trial, you are giving up the opportunity to have your case heard and decided by a panel of your peers. Juries can often empathize with the human aspects of a case, which might not be the case with a judge known for a more impersonal approach.
- Concentration of Power: In a bench trial, the power is concentrated in the hands of one person – the judge. They alone interpret the law, evaluate the evidence, and determine the verdict. This concentration of power may not always work in your favor.
- Potential for Bias: While judges strive to be impartial, they are human and may have unconscious biases. On the other hand, a jury consists of several individuals who can balance out individual biases.
- Lack of Community Perspective: Juries reflect community values and norms. A judge may not fully represent or understand these perspectives despite their expertise. This could be disadvantageous in cases where societal context is essential.
Ultimately, deciding whether to insist on a jury trial is highly subjective and may differ from case to case. In any event, the right to trial by jury should not be given up lightly.
Never waive this right without consulting with an experienced California criminal defense attorney who can help you weigh the pros and cons and help you determine whether doing so improves your chances for a better outcome. Contact our law firm for more information to review the case details and legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.