If you are currently facing criminal charges, one of the most important decisions you will need to make over the course of your case is whether you want to accept a guilty plea agreement or take your case to trial and force the State to attempt to prove your guilt. If you decide to proceed to trial, you will then need to decide if you want your case decided by a judge or a jury. Although none of the decisions in a criminal case should be made without the advice and counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney, the more you know the better. Toward that end, a Murfreesboro criminal defense attorney explains the basic differences between a jury trial and a bench trial.
Criminal Law Basics and the State’s Burden
As a defendant in a criminal prosecution in the United States you have a number of important rights, most of which can be found in the first ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights.” Your right to a trial by jury, along with several other important rights, can be found in the Sixth Amendment which reads as follows:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Contrary to what many people believe, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that you are likely familiar with is not actually directly included in any Amendment. Instead, it has been carved out of the due process rights found in the 5th and 14th Amendments. Nevertheless, it is a well-established part of our criminal justice system that the State (through the prosecuting attorney) must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction at trial. Therefore, if you choose to take your case to trial, the State must meet that burden in order for you to be convicted. Conversely, if you accept a guilty plea agreement you are admitting your guilt, making a trial unnecessary.
Jury Trial vs. Bench Trial
If you do decide to take your case to trial, you will still need to make one other important decision – whether you want a judge or a jury to decide the issue of guilt. As you read above, in all criminal prosecutions a defendant is entitled to a trial by jury; however, that is your right as a defendant to exercise or waive. In a jury trial, members of the community, selected at random from the state’s driver’s license or voting lists, are summoned by the court to potentially become part of the jury. Through the process known as “voir dire” both sides will question the prospective jurors and keep or excuse them one by one until the necessary number needed to make up the final jury remain. Those people will then sit through the trial, listening to both sides present its case. When both sides are finished, the jury will leave the courtroom to deliberate and reach a verdict. To convict you, the jury must unanimously agree that you are guilty.
A bench trial, sometimes referred to as a “trial by judge,” will appear exactly the same as a jury trial with regard to the presentation of the cases by both sides, except there is no jury listening to the trial. Instead, the judge renders the verdict at the end of trial.
There are numerous factors that should be considered when deciding if you should elect to have your case heard by a judge or a jury. Only an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney can help you make such an important decision.
Contact a Murfreesboro Criminal Defense Attorney
If you facing criminal charges in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby as soon as possible to ensure that your rights are protected. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.