Bench Trials

What is a Bench Trial in Georgia?

A bench trial is where the judge decides guilt or innocence. The other option is a jury trial where you get six or twelve jurors who decided whether the accused is innocent or guilty. In most state courts, defendants receive a bench trial unless the plaintiff or defendant specifically requests a jury trial. However, in criminal cases, the defendant will be given a jury trial unless they specifically ask for a bench trial.

What Happens During a Bench Trial? 

Bench trials are similar to jury trials in that the prosecutor must present evidence that proves the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes charged with. The difference is that instead of presenting it to jurors, they just present it to the judge. The evidence is presented, witnesses testify, and any legal issues are argued during the process. The defendant's attorney is allowed to cross-examine the witnesses as well as present witnesses of their own. The court is required to follow the same rules of evidence and procedure at every trial, and the judge cannot rule differently in a bench trial than he would in a jury trial. There is a possibility that a bench trial may be a little less formal because there is no jury, but either at a jury or bench trial, the process is the same. If convicted, the accused has the right to appeal their conviction to the higher court. 

What Are The Benefits Of A Bench Trial? 

There are multiple advantages to a bench trial including:

  • Faster resolution of the case. Jury trials require jury selection and instructions which can make the trial process last much longer. Bench trials can be scheduled easier than jury trials and are often resolved in a matter of hours. If you are represented by an attorney and paying hourly, then bench trials could save you money.
  • When the attorney uses technical defenses. If the case turns on applying a complicated legal rule, some juries tend to ignore the rule because they may not understand it. However, judges grasp these laws and how they apply to the case.
  • Ability to ignore damaging information. Sometimes during jury trials, if there is evidence that puts the defendant in a bad light but is irrelevant to the charge, juries may still form negative thoughts about the accused. However, judges can be more neutral than a jury and will be able to set aside the irrelevant information when deciding whether or not the defendant is guilty.

However, there are also risks of a bench trial instead of a jury trial for a defendant including:

  • One person is deciding the case. At a bench trial, the prosecutor must only convince the judge of the accused's guilty while at a jury trial they have to convince all 6 or 12 people.
  • The judge knows and understands all the legal rules. During a jury trial, one defense strategy is to hope that the jury doesn't all the rules and instead will acquit the defendant on emotional grounds instead. However, a judge is not likely to acquit based on emotional grounds.
  • Pressure to convict. While this is not proven, some critics of the legal system suspect that judges may be tempted to please the public's desire for a conviction because they may have to stand for re-election.

Should I Opt For A Bench Trial Instead Of A Jury Trial?

Unfortunately, there is no set standard for what cases are best for bench trials and which are best for jury trials. It is best to consider the pros and cons of each option in your own case. Your Georgia Criminal Defense Attorney can help address these issues and give you informed options. Often, people who are unrepresented by an attorney are told they should opt for a bench trial instead of a jury trial in order to avoid the complexities of choosing a jury. That is just one of the reasons why it is vital to your case to hire a lawyer to help you make that decision and not let others just tell you what to do.

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Obtaining legal representation is just the first step in ensuring you receive the best defense possible. Your attorney can present the specific advantages or disadvantages to a bench or jury trial and give you meaningful advice about your options. Don't try to do this on your own; the legal system is not designed for self-service and can be overwhelming. Our Attorneys have decades of criminal defense experience so contact us today.

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