If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the State of Tennessee, one of the most important decisions you will have to make is the decision to accept a guilty plea agreement with the State or take your case to trial. If you choose the latter option, you will need to make yet another crucial decision that will ultimately determine who decides your fate. A Murfreesboro criminal defense lawyer at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby explains the difference between a jury trial and a bench trial and discusses which is better for your Tennessee criminal case.
Understanding Your Right to a Trial by Jury
Every defendant in a criminal prosecution has a right to a trial by jury established in both the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution. That means you have the right to “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” In Tennessee, your right to a jury trial applies to all felony offenses as well as to misdemeanor offenses if the misdemeanor carries a penalty of more than six months in jail or if the misdemeanor could result in additional penalties. In practical terms, that means that you have the right to let members of the community listen to the evidence and testimony presented at trial and render a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Your right to a jury trial, however, is your right to exercise or waive.
What Is a Bench Trial?
Although you have a right to a trial by jury, you may waive that right and elect a bench trial instead. A bench trial operates the same way as a jury trial except that the judge decides the verdict instead of a jury. That means that the evidence and testimony are presented the same way as they would be at a jury trial but instead of simply presiding over the trial, the judge will determine your fate at the end of the trial.
Is a Jury or Bench Trial a Better Option?
If you have decided to take your case to trial, you will have to decide to exercise your right to a trial by jury or waive that right and proceed to a bench trial. This is not a decision to be made lightly. On the contrary, you should only make this decision after consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney because the unique facts and circumstances surrounding your case will likely impact which option is best. Some common factors to consider when deciding between a jury and bench trial include:
- Notoriety of the case. In a high-profile criminal case, it can be difficult to find a jury pool of people who are not already familiar with the case. Although they may claim they can be objective, the reality is that their opinion may already be tainted based on what they have heard or read about the case.
- Evidence and facts excluded. During the pre-trial phase leading up to a criminal trial, certain evidence and facts may be ruled inadmissible by the judge. That means that a jury will never know about those facts or hear about the evidence; however, the judge presiding over the case does know.
- Judge’s reputation. Although every judge takes an oath that promises he/she will uphold the law and make impartial decisions, the reality is that every judge is also a unique human being. Judges tend to develop reputations based on decisions they make, sentences they hand down, and verdicts they render. Knowing a judge’s reputation can be crucial in deciding whether to let that judge decide your fate.
- Complexity of legal concepts. At the end of a trial by jury, the judge reads a set of jury instructions to the jury members that are intended to be used to help the jurors reach a verdict. When your defense hinges on complex legal concepts, however, there is always a chance that the jury members will not be sufficiently trained to understand the finer points of the law. In that case, it can be better to rely on a judge’s legal training and experience.
Contact a Murfreesboro Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Tennessee, consult with an experienced Murfreesboro criminal defense lawyer at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your free appointment.
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