The National Conference of State Legislatures reported about one in three adults in the U.S. have a criminal record as of 2022. Many of these cases went to trial.
There are two methods of conducting trials. An individual can choose between a jury trial and a bench trial. While both serve the purpose of resolving disputes, they differ significantly in their structure and dynamics.
A key distinction between jury and bench trials lies in the decision-making process. In a jury trial, a group of individuals, the jury, is responsible for determining the facts of the case and delivering a verdict. This diverse group of people comes from the community. They listen to evidence from both sides and collectively decide the outcome. The jury makes its decision through their interpretation of the facts and the legal instructions from the judge.
A bench trial involves a judge acting as both the fact-finder and the arbiter of the law. The judge assumes the responsibility of evaluating evidence, determining credibility and applying the law to reach a verdict. There is no external group influencing the decision. It rests solely on the judge.
Decision maker background
A jury can have diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The members are typically people who have no legal training or only basic knowledge of the law. Jurors may use emotions, personal experiences or biases when making decisions.
A judge has the use of his or her legal experience and expertise when rendering a decision. He or she is more likely to make decisions based purely on the law and evidence, without the influence of emotions.
Jury trials often involve a more elaborate process. Attorneys from both sides participate in the selection of jurors. They question potential members to identify biases or preconceptions that might affect their ability to be impartial. During the trial, there are moments where the jury must receive instructions and times when they will meet together.
In a bench trial, the judge is handling everything, so there is no need to take the time to select a jury or explain legal concepts. Judges also typically take less time to determine the verdict.
While the differences between jury trials and bench trials are significant, both aim to achieve justice at the end of the day. Anyone facing the decision between the two options should carefully consider the ways they differ.