Judge or Jury — You Choose

I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution. ~ Thomas Jefferson

If you've been accused of a crime in Wyoming and choose to take your case to trial, you will have an important choice to make - whether to have your case tried to a jury, or to waive your right to a jury trial and instead have your case heard by the judge alone.

The American criminal justice system was designed to ensure that innocent people are not wrongfully convicted and sent to jail. Chief among these protections is the right to a trial by jury, which is included in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

Anyone accused of a crime can choose to have their case heard by a jury, or they can waive their right to a jury trial and instead have their case decided only by the judge. To understand this choice between judge or jury, it is helpful to understand the differences between a jury trial and a bench trial.

What is a Bench Trial?

A bench trial takes place only in front of the judge. There is no jury involved. The judge acts as both finder-of-fact and is the decision-maker on rules of law. This means that the judge will decide both the credibility of the evidence, and make rulings on how the trial is conducted according to the laws of criminal procedure.

A bench trial is usually shorter than a jury trial because the lawyers do not need to go through the time-consuming process of picking and instructing a jury. A bench trial is also slightly less formal than a jury trial.

Bench trials can be beneficial when people need a quick resolution to a legal matter, in complex cases that might be difficult for a jury to understand, and in emotionally sensitive cases where it might be difficult for jurors to presume that the defendant is innocent.

The drawback to a bench trial is that only one person – the judge – will decide on the credibility of the evidence, and whether or not the defendant is guilty.

When Do You Get a Jury Trial?

Jury trials are the “default” choice in most criminal trials. A jury, made up of members of the community, will act as the finder-of-fact. They will make decisions about the credibility of the evidence, like whether or not a witness is trustworthy.

The jury will listen to the evidence presented during the trial and make a decision based on how persuasive each side's evidence is. In a jury trial, the judge will handle questions of law and procedure, like the attorneys' objections to questions or evidence, and ruling on motions that the attorneys make.

The drawbacks to jury trials are that they are time-consuming, and that jurors may not always follow the law, instead basing their decision on emotion.

The decision to try your case to a judge or to a jury is a critical part of your case strategy. Such an important decision should only be made in consultation with your experienced criminal defense lawyer.

Why would you waive your right to have your case decided by a jury?

A jury trial is the “default” position for most criminal trials because it is generally more difficult for the prosecution to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 people than to a single finder of fact (the judge). If your criminal defense lawyer can convince just one person on the jury that you are not guilty, the case could be declared a mistrial, which could force the prosecutor to reconsider their position and offer a better plea offer.

On the other hand, if a case has particular sensitive elements, like a person accused of a sex crime or a police officer accused of using excessive force, it might be difficult for the jury to presume that the defendant is innocent, a fundamental right to which all people accused of a crime are entitled. If your criminal defense lawyer has exhausted all efforts to exclude inflammatory evidence or to eliminate problematic jurors, it might be best to waive a jury trial and instead try your case to the bench.

Before deciding to waive your constitutional right to a jury trial, it is important to understand the attributes of a jury trial. Waiver of a jury trial is almost always done in writing, and the judge will often discuss the attributes of a jury trial with a defendant, on the record, before accepting a jury waiver.

The fundamental attributes of a jury trial are:

  • The jury would be composed of 12 members of the community
  • The defendant can participate in selecting the jurors
  • The jury’s verdict must be unanimous
  • If a defendant waives her right to a jury trial, the judge alone will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty

Most people choose a jury trial if their case will turn on emotion. If your case will turn on a specific, technical legal question, a bench trial might be better.

Deciding to waive your constitutional right to a jury trial is an important choice in a criminal case, and should only be done in consultation with an experienced Wyoming criminal defense attorney.

Accused of a Crime in Wyoming or South Dakota? Contact Me Today

If you are facing criminal charges in Wyoming or South Dakota, you need a team of experienced criminal defense professionals on your side. Contact Just Criminal Law today for a free initial consultation.

Based in Gillette, Wyoming, Just Criminal Law represents people in Northeast Wyoming and Western South Dakota. Call 307-686-6556, email office@justcriminallaw.com, or complete our online form.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only. This information is not offered as legal advice. A person accused of a crime should always consult with an attorney before making decisions that have legal consequences.