What Is a Bench Trial in Georgia?

What Is a Bench Trial in Georgia.

If you are charged with a criminal offense in Georgia, the United States Constitution and Georgia Constitution guarantee you the right to a jury trial. You can, however, waive (give up) that right by entering a plea or requesting a bench trial, in which a judge tries the case without a jury. Before you make any decisions about how to proceed in a criminal case, getting help from an experienced criminal defense attorney is essential.

Right to a Jury Trial

If you are arrested and charged with a criminal offense, provisions in the Constitutions of the United States and Georgia give you the right to a jury trial. This right is an important part of the Georgia criminal process. As with any legal right, you can waive the right to be tried by a jury, which means you give up that right. There are several ways the right can be waived.

Instead of a jury trial, you may request a bench trial, which is a trial conducted by a judge without a jury. In a jury trial, the jurors decide the facts of the case and apply the law, as given to them by the judge in jury instructions. In a bench trial, the judge determines the facts and applies the law to reach a decision on guilt or acquittal. If a defendant and their attorney decide to go to trial, the decision on having a jury trial or bench trial belongs entirely to the defendant. A prosecutor cannot force a defendant to have a bench trial.

Since most criminal cases conclude with a plea bargain, the issue of deciding between a jury trial and a bench trial frequently does not arise in a criminal case. You automatically waive the right to a trial if you enter a plea in the case. However, in some cases, you and your attorney may make the strategic decision to go to trial. In that situation, you do need to decide between a jury trial and a bench trial.

You should never enter a plea or decide to go to trial without getting advice from a criminal defense lawyer. You should always get a lawyer as soon as possible after you are arrested, or even during an investigation if you know you may be arrested.

Difference Between a Jury Trial and Bench Trial

Both types of trials have advantages and disadvantages. Which one is more suitable depends entirely on the circumstances in the case, including both the facts and the applicable legal principles. You can only make an informed choice with advice from a lawyer based on the overall situation of your case.

Complexity of Legal Issues

If your case has difficult legal issues, a bench trial may be more suitable than a jury trial. Jurors are not trained in the law. The jury receives instructions from the judge on the laws and legal rules that apply in the case they are deciding. The jurors first determine the facts from the evidence introduced in trial, then they apply the legal rules to those facts. Jurors can make mistakes in applying the law. In contrast, a judge is unlikely to make a mistake in applying the law to the facts of the case, although that does sometimes happen — and can be grounds for appealing a decision. A defendant can always appeal from a guilty verdict, whether the case is tried by a jury or by a judge.

Emotional Aspects of the Case

In determining the facts of the case (and sometimes even in applying the law), jurors are more likely to be swayed by emotional appeals and other aspects of a case. If your case involves issues that may be favorably influenced by emotions, then you and your attorney may decide that a jury trial is better than a bench trial.

By virtue of the judicial position, a judge is neutral and unbiased in determining facts and applying the law. Judges typically do not make decisions based on emotions or personal values. In contrast, every juror comes with their own values, background, and biases, which may be favorable or unfavorable to a defendant. The jury selection process is used to try to eliminate jurors who may be unable to deliberate fairly, although that is not always completely possible. So, in some regards, a jury decision can be unpredictable and unexpected, either in favor of or against a defendant.

Certainty of a Verdict

In a jury trial, there is always a chance that the jury will not be able to reach a unanimous verdict, which results in a hung jury (no decision). A jury trial may also result in a mistrial, if certain errors occur during the trial. In both situations, the defendant is not found guilty or acquitted. The prosecutor may be able to retry the case before a different jury, depending on the situation. Bench trials rarely end without the judge making a decision, although a mistrial is possible in a bench trial. In most bench trials, there usually is a decision from the judge, either guilty or not guilty.

Scheduling and Efficiency

Finally, a bench trial is usually a faster process to initiate, because it does not involve scheduling a jury trial and selecting jurors, and the trial itself is usually more efficient. If the defendant wants or needs an expeditious decision, a bench trial may be preferred. No matter what the circumstances, the decision between a jury trial and a bench trial is one that must be made with assistance from an experienced criminal defense attorney, just as the decision of whether to enter a plea or go to trial is one requiring professional help. If you decide to go to trial, your lawyer helps you evaluate all the advantages and disadvantages of both types of trials before you choose what type of trial you wish to have.

Schedule a Consultation with an Experienced Georgia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Our criminal and DUI defense lawyers at The McCoy Law Firm, LLC, have decades of experience representing defendants facing all types of misdemeanor and felony criminal charges throughout northwest Georgia. If you are under investigation or are facing any criminal charge, please contact Criminal & DUI Law of Georgia, so we can begin working on your case right away.

Categories: Criminal Defense