Should you choose a jury trial or a bench trial?

If you are facing criminal charges, at some point in the process, you will need to decide whether you want to have a bench trial (where the judge decides) or a jury trial (where either 6 or 12 jurors decide). So, how do you make that decision?

From my perspective, as a top Michigan criminal defense attorney, the thought of requesting a bench trial is like nails on a chalkboard. I don’t even want to hear it. There is no question, that in most cases, a jury trial is the way to go.

There is a reason why our system allows for a jury of our peers to decide our fate in criminal cases. Judges, even the good ones, often become jaded pretty quickly. They see people come through their courtroom, charged with crimes, day after day. The majority of those people enter pleas of guilty. It’s pretty easy to get to a place where you start believing that everyone IS guilty. That’s probably not the starting place that you want for the person deciding your fate.

One concern that I hear from people who are making this decision is that they are afraid that the judge will be offended if you choose to try the case to a jury instead of the judge. First, most of the time, that’s simply not the case. It’s the judge’s job to preside over jury trials, and I think that many of them recognize that most defendants aren’t going to want to have the judge decide their case. But even if you assume that this choice is going to anger or annoy the judge, that’s certainly not a reason to choose a bench trial. Any judge who is angry about your decision to elect a jury trial isn’t exactly likely to be fair to you in a bench trial.

While the jury system is not perfect, it is the greatest system ever invented. And more often than not, juries get it right. I’ve had juries make some really difficult decisions to acquit clients who had a lot of evidence stacked up against them. But when the government couldn’t prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the juries did the right thing.

Jurors are human beings like everyone else. They aren’t thinking about the law. They are identifying with the person that they are judging and putting themselves in their shoes. Jurors are able to get to the things that sometimes the lawyers and judges in the courtroom miss – the important things like emotions and the realities of life. Nothing in this world happens in a bubble. Jurors are skilled at getting to the underlying issues in the case and making a decision based on the whole picture, not just what the lawyers are telling them to focus on.

So, my rule is to always choose a jury. Are there exceptions to that rule? Sure. There are always exceptions. But in deciding between a jury trial and a bench trial, the decision for a bench trial should be extremely rare and have highly unusual circumstances. In nine years of practice and hundreds of criminal defense cases, I have never deliberately chosen a bench trial. (I have, unfortunately, been forced to run a bench trial after the client waived their jury trial right before I was retained in the case.)

If you are facing criminal charges, and need assistance taking your case to jury trial, contact the top Grand Rapids criminal defense attorneys at Blanchard Law, PLC at (616) 773-2945 for a consultation.

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