As a defendant in a criminal prosecution, you will find that you need to make a number of important, often life-changing, decisions throughout the course of your case. Your criminal defense attorney will be there to explain your options, offer you advice, and guide you toward what he/she believes is the right choice; however, some decisions are ultimately yours alone to make. One of those is whether or not to have the outcome of your case decided by a jury. A Tennessee criminal defense attorney explains some of the reasons why you might want a jury trial and some reasons why you might not want to go that route.
Your Constitutional Right to a Trial by Jury
Your right to a trial by jury, along with several other important rights, can be found in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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.”
Trial vs. Plea Agreement
In most criminal prosecutions, the prosecuting attorney offers the defendant the option to enter into a guilty plea agreement. The benefit to pleading guilty is typically found in the certainty of the consequences. With a plea agreement, you agree to spare the State a trial in exchange for a more lenient (usually) pre-determined sentence. If you are not guilty, of course, entering into a plea agreement is not an option. Otherwise, you will need to consult with your defense attorney to decide if accepting a plea agreement is in your best interest. If you decide against accepting a plea agreement it means the outcome of your case will be decided at trial.
Jury Trial vs. Bench Trial
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 the trial.
Numerous factors should be considered when choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial. For example, if you feel you cannot get a true jury of your “peers” you might be better off letting a judge decide your fate. This is often the case when the defendant is a minority and the jury pool does not include many minorities. Conversely, a jury trial is sometimes the preferred choice when a defendant is technically guilty but a jury is likely to be sympathetic and acquit. A store owner who has been robbed and assaulted numerous times and finally snaps and shoots someone he thinks is trying to rob the store, for instance, might be a case for a jury.
Ultimately, the unique facts and circumstances of your case will be considered by you and your attorney when deciding if a jury trial is the best option. Given what is at stake, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before deciding to take your case to jury trial.
Contact a Tennessee Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have additional questions or concerns about jury trials or criminal defense in general in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney immediately. Contact the team at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.