Trial by Judge or Jury? - Pittsburgh Defense Lawyers

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Trial By Judge or Trial By Jury – Things You Need to Consider

In the United States, every person has the right to a trial by jury when accused of a crime, but that doesn’t mean it is your only option. You can also choose a bench trial, or a trial by judge. In either case, the ruling can go either way for you, but choosing between a jury trial or a bench trail can often make the difference between a guilty or not guilty verdict.

This fact makes choosing between a trial by judge or a trial by jury complex and challenging for the average person. Still, there are five things to consider that can help to make the decision easier for you.

How quickly do you need a verdict?

Generally, a bench trial is a simpler and faster option. At a trial by judge, opening statements, jury selection, and jury instructions are not necessary. Plus any strict court procedural rules necessary in a jury trial may be relaxed in front of a judge. Finally, a judge will take less time deliberating in most cases, since the judge makes a sole decision. There is no need for 12 people to come to an agreement. Remember, though, that expediency may not be in your ultimate best interest if it leads to a guilty verdict.

Are there extenuating circumstances in the case that would affect the judge or jury’s emotions?

When attorneys want an emotional decision, they choose a jury trial. That’s because a judge is supposed to decide a case solely on the facts, not on his or her gut feeling about a case. A jury, on the other hand, could consider emotional aspects. For example, a sympathetic motive may sway a jury not to convict even if they believe that the crime occurred. Even just a very likeable defendant sometimes can help influence a jury’s decision in your favor.

Is the case highly publicized or controversial?

Judges are supposed to be impartial, but they are only human, and thus in controversial cases have to answer to the voters, law enforcement, the media, and other parties to the case. Jury members are legally under less scrutiny and only have to answer to their own consciences, so they sometimes are preferable in controversial cases. On the other hand, juries can sometimes be more strongly influenced by the media’s portrayal of a case. In some trials that are very public, it can be difficult to find impartial juries.

Is there particularly damaging evidence such as eyewitness testimony or a coerced confession?

If evidence like this is presented in court, it can really hurt a jury trial when not properly put in context. An expert witness can be called to explain the possibilities of false identification or the pressure to confess despite being innocent. Sometimes judges will be more open to this possibility if they have seen many cases where these problems have occurred, while other times judges grow callous to these arguments. Similarly, some jurors will trust these expert witnesses and others will not. Generally, these cases can go either way when you have a good expert to call. If not, a bench trial may be preferable.

How common are the circumstances of your case?

If your case is pretty standard (as most are), the judge presiding over your case has heard any argument your lawyer can make in your case. A juror who hears a compelling case once in his or her lifetime is usually much more moved by it than a judge who has heard an argument hundreds of times. While in theory this should not affect the outcome, it often does regardless. A jury trial is almost always preferable, because the case is being heard by totally new ears, which should be more receptive to what is happening in the courtroom.

As you can see, deciding on a trial by jury versus a trial by judge is a complex decision. So many factors are involved that it is almost impossible for the average defendant to make an informed decision, but luckily an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney can walk you through the process to help you decide. If you have been accused of a crime in Pennsylvania, call the experienced Pittsburgh defense lawyers at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC today at (412) 281-2146 for a free consultation on your case. We will work with you to make the best decision on how to proceed, whether that is a bench trial or a jury trial.