A Jury Trial versus a Bench Trial: Which is Better for my Arizona Criminal Case?
When most people hear the word “trial,” they immediately conjure images of a defendant being tried in a courtroom in front of a judge, jury, and possible spectators. However, there are actually two forms of trials: jury trials and bench trials. While they share certain qualities, it is important to understand the differences between them, the benefits of each, and a defendant’s eligibility to have either one in the state of Arizona.
General Difference Between a Jury Trial and a Bench Trial
In a jury trial, a defendant’s case is tried before a judge and a jury panel of their peers, with the jury providing the verdict for a case. In a bench trial, a defendant’s case is tried only before a judge, with the judge alone coming to the ultimate verdict.
Understanding the Jury Trial
A defendant has the right to a jury trial in Arizona for many, but not all, criminal cases. Anyone charged with a felony is automatically granted the right to a jury trial. Only certain misdemeanor cases are eligible for jury trials: DUI, OUI, reckless driving, shoplifting/theft, prostitution or its solicitation, indecent exposure, and traffic violations that cause serious injury or death.
While not criminal, it should also be noted that Arizona does not allow for jury trials in cases regarding divorce, juveniles, dependency, or custody.
A defendant can choose to waive their right to a jury trial in favor of partaking in a bench trial if the court consents.
In felony cases where a death sentence or imprisonment of at least 30 years is on the table, the jury must consist of 12 jurors and the jurors must agree unanimously on their verdict. All other cases, including misdemeanors and lesser felonies, must have at least 6 jurors. If a jury does not come to a unanimous decision, they are considered “hung” and the case is able to be retried in trial, settled through a Plea Agreement, or moved to be dismissed.
Jury trials generally last from one to three days but can reach over a week in length.
Understanding the Bench Trial
Excluding any that are eligible for a jury trial, misdemeanor cases are granted only the right to a bench trial.
A bench trial is held before only a judge, with no jury of peers involved. Rather than a jury needing to come to a unanimous decision, the judge will determine the verdict him or herself after hearing all the evidence and testimony.
A bench trial can usually be completed in a single day, as there is no jury selection process, explaining of court procedure to a jury throughout the trial, or jury deliberation.
Benefits of a Jury Trial
There are benefits to be found in each type of criminal case trial. The best trial option will depend on each individual case, the type of evidence involved, and the likelihood of certain outcomes regarding each unique circumstance.
In a jury trial, a “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” verdict can only be reached unanimously. Some defendants find this ideal, as it can be more challenging to convince an entire panel of jurors of this level of guilt as opposed to a bench trial, where only a single judge needs to be convinced in order to convict. Juries may also be more influenced by a defendant’s appearance and empathy rather than hard legal facts, which is much less likely with a judge.
Defense attorneys may also prefer jury trials as they have a higher likelihood of being able to appeal if formalities like jury instructions aren’t carried out appropriately.
Additionally, defense attorneys are often familiar with the judges involved in their cases. If they know a judge tends to be particularly harsh in certain scenarios, they may find a jury trial to be more likely to provide a favorable outcome.
Benefits of a Bench Trial
Bench trials may be advisable if the case evidence includes a lot of legal nuance that may be confusing or easily misconstrued by a jury and would be heard more objectively by a judge. Bench trials are often much shorter (and therefore less expensive) than a jury trial. Additionally, they tend to feel less intimidating given their more intimate nature and the lack of needing to pause to explain court procedure to a jury.
A defendant who might not come across sympathetically to a jury of peers for any reason may also have a more favorable outcome in front of a judge.
A defendant being tried in a bench trial will be guaranteed a verdict at the end, without having the risk of a hung jury that causes the case to be dragged on for even longer. While this can be a con in some cases, in others this can be preferable for the defendant.
As in jury trials, defense attorneys are often familiar with the judges involved in their cases. If they know they have a particular case and defendant that will play well in front of the judge assigned to that case, they may feel they are more likely to have a favorable outcome with a bench trial rather than risking the whims of a jury.
Ultimately, a defense attorney will be able to determine the best course of action for each particular criminal case based on the circumstances, evidence, and input from the defendant. Rideout Law Group has extensive experience with criminal trials in both bench and jury format, including experience from both the prosecution and defense sides, allowing for a uniquely well-rounded approach to trial.
RIDEOUT LAW GROUP
With offices in Lake Havasu City and Scottsdale, our firm serves the entire state of Arizona, with a particular focus on criminal defense, family law, and juvenile cases.
Our goal is for the best outcome for your criminal case, which can include:
- charges that are reduced or dropped.
- top experts reviewing your case.
- aggressive negotiations with the prosecution for plea bargains.
- fines or probation in lieu of jail time.
At Rideout Law Group, our attorneys are able to expertly examine the evidence in your case to provide a strong strategy for argument that leads to an outcome that is most favorable to you. We have experience in all types of criminal cases for both adults and juveniles, with positive outcomes both in plea negotiations as well as jury trial settings.
Call us today for a free consultation at 480-584-3328.