A jury trial waiver is issued when a defendant chooses to forego a jury trial and have the judge hear and decide the case solely by himself or herself. This is known as a “bench trial.”

What Is a Jury Trial Waiver?

Almost everyone is familiar with the seventh amendment's guarantee of a trial by jury. In some cases, a criminal defendant may opt for a bench trial instead.

A jury trial waiver provides that a party can waive its seventh amendment right. The court system will still handle all disputes, including discovery and appeals, but a judge makes his ruling unanimously.

Bench trials are undoubtedly quicker and cheaper than jury trials. In a jury trial, a jury must be chosen, instructed, and given time to deliberate. If a trial goes on for a long period of time, the jury must also be fed and housed.

In lieu of a jury trial, some choose to have their disputes settled by the court, on the condition that a judge makes the final decision.

Bench Trials are Relatively New

Previously, it was understood that a criminal defendant had a right to a jury trial, unless there were legal specifications that gave the accused the option of choosing a bench trial. However, in 1930 the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that indirectly paved the way for bench trials.

In this case, the Court ruled it was acceptable for the defendant to agree that just 11 jurors could decide the case since the 12th juror became ill. The judges continued by saying that once a 12-person jury is dispensed with, you may as well have no jury.

This justification by the court concerned public policy because the state has an interest in preserving and protecting the lives and liberties of its citizens. This interest is furthered by placing the responsibility of finding someone guilty on 12 people instead of only one person.

Therefore, the court noted that the prosecutor and the court must agree before waiving a jury trial.

Why Choose a Bench Trial?

In most instances, it's more advantageous to a criminal defendant to have a jury decide a case instead of a judge. The basic reason for this advantage can be summed up with the phrase, “It only takes one.” That is, it only takes a single juror out of a pool of 12 to vote "not guilty" and lead to a hung jury.

The case may be retried, but in many instances, it will instead be plea-bargained to a lesser charge or perhaps dismissed completely. Prosecutors must convince all 12 jurors, so in jury trials, odds are often in favor of the defense.

However, sometimes it makes sense to give the case to a judge instead. The following are compelling reasons to choose a bench trial:

  • Disturbing facts: In a trial concerning particularly disturbing acts of violence, the defense may worry that a jury could be swayed, even distracted, by gruesome evidence. Judges, on the other hand, are more accustomed to disturbing scenarios, so they're often better equipped to focus on the evidence in the case and not be swayed by emotions.
  • Negative pre-trial publicity: For certain cases, even changing the venue won't downplay the effects of extensive coverage. A judge may be better at tuning out such publicity.
  • An especially difficult defendant: A defense attorney may worry that his or her client's background, appearance, past record, or attitude will create a negative impression on the jurors, interfering with their duty of only looking at evidence.
  • A favorable judge: Sometimes, litigants know beforehand which judge will preside over a case. Judges have reputations, and experienced attorneys know which judges are fair and which ones have a hard reputation. Therefore, a defense attorney likely won't seek a bench trial with the latter type of judge but will consider it for a judge known to be fair and impartial.

Jury trials have their merits, but in some cases, a bench trial may be preferable. An experienced attorney can guide his or her clients in the right direction by carefully considering all of the variables involved.

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