What is the difference between a Jury Trial and a Bench Trial?
When you and your attorney have decided that the best course of option for resolving your case is to proceed to trial, you have two options: a Bench Trial or a Jury Trial.
Bench Trials are trials where JUST a judge hears the evidence, and JUST a judge makes the determination of whether the State has proved you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Bench trials are almost always shorter than jury trials, and can frequently be done in a single day, and sometimes in only half of a day. In Indiana, misdemeanors are automatically set for Bench Trial. You have an absolute right to a Jury Trial in a misdemeanor case, but you would need to make this demand in writing NOT LATER THAN ten days BEFORE your first trial setting. Making sure that you don’t lose this right is another good reason to make sure that you hire an attorney as soon as possible.
Jury Trials are trials where members of the community are summoned in to hear the evidence and they make the determination of whether the State has proven you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Except for death penalty cases, juries in Indiana aren’t allowed to determine what the sentence for any particular conviction is, and they aren’t even allowed to be told the potential sentences that can be imposed. In Indiana, felony cases are automatically set for Jury Trial. Level 6 Felonies (as well as misdemeanor cases that are set for Jury) have juries made up of six members plus one alternate juror, and higher-level offenses have twelve jurors plus at least one alternate, although most courts will typically try to choose two alternates in the case of a major felony case.
The decision for whether to have a Bench or Jury Trial is definitely a complicated one. Sometimes the optics of a case, such as incidents involving particularly gruesome crimes, make having a Bench Trial more desirable because it’s less likely that a judge is going to be swayed by emotion as the evidence is presented. At the same time, by the point that a case comes to trial the judge has already seen a defendant in court several times, they’ve already made decisions regarding the existence of probable cause, bail, and sometimes on the admissibility of potentially key pieces of potential evidence. This can make some people nervous about whether a judge will be completely impartial.
Juries have their own negative stereotypes, too. A common joke is that no one wants to be judged by someone “too stupid” to get out of jury duty. And it’s true that a lot of people DO go out of their way to avoid jury service, and I think that both of those attitudes are wrong. I have found that the individuals who have served on my juries have all been thoughtful, attentive, and take their oaths as jurors EXTREMELY seriously. Even when a verdict did not go the way that I had hoped it would, I’ve never had anything other than respect for the people who served on my juries.
At the end of the day, the tactical decision of what type of trial you should have needs to be discussed with your attorney after reviewing all of the information about the facts of your case and the likely defenses that you’ll need to present. Some arguments are better made to judges, and some are better made to juries. An experienced attorney can help you to determine which type of trial is best for you.
At Razumich & Delamater, our goal is to make sure that each of our clients receives the personalized attention that their cases deserve so that they can make the best possible decisions on important matters affecting their future. We personally meet with everyone who sets an appointment with our office, and we will take as long as necessary to make sure that every question you have is answered as completely as possible. That’s our promise to you: we’re Lawyers Ready to Fight, and we look forward to fighting for you.