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Bench Trials 101

I had a DWI bench trial on Thursday (no verdict yet) that sapped my weekend blogging energy. I don’t usually blog about my pending cases, so lets talk about bench trials in general.

What is a bench trial?
Bench trial, judge trial, TBC (trial before the court), or TBJ (trial before judge) are all the same thing- a trial without a jury. In a bench trial the judge not only decides the law, but also the facts.

The defendant does not enjoy a unilateral right to request a bench trial. The State must consent to a jury waiver. The State’s “right” to a jury trial is one reason that poison the jury pool ads (Drink. Drive. Go To Jail) undermine the criminal justice system. The State spends millions to persuade jurors to convict for DWI, and the State can demand a jury trial. Nice.

Should I have a bench trial?
First, you have to weigh the judge/jury pool. If a judge has a reputation as being pro prosecution (or is an ex prosecutor, or ex-DA) then you may want a jury.

Second, it depends on what your local jurors are like. Locally, Collin county is regarded as the most pro conviction jury pool in the Metroplex. Ergo, bench trials are in high demand in McKinney.

Third, it depends on what the charge is. If you are charged with a 3(g) offense or sex crime that is beyond the scope of this post (call a lawyer). District court judges deal with serious criminal cases every day. This produces both a familiarity and objectivity that may be lacking in the venire member. Whereas most jurors have not seen an alleged meth dealer before, judges see a never ending revolving door of suspected felons.

Why do defendants want a bench trial?
To restate, I advise the defendant and she makes the choice between a judge or jury. Besides the earlier considerations many defendants are looking for the quickest resolution to their case.
Bench trials are hands down quicker and less stressful for defendants.

For example, a typical DWI bench trial is a day or less. A DWI jury trial is usually at least 2-4 days. Without a jury there is no voir dire, no jury charge, no need to constantly excuse the jury for evidentary rulings etc, no need to wait during deliberations etc.

There is also a real jury phobia among some defendants. No one wants to be put on display, judged by the public, ridiculed by prosecutors etc. For defendants with anxiety disorders, shyness, mental illness, or just an akward appearance this is a real consideration.

I work with my clients to minimize the fear of the unknown with a jury trial. It’s not easy. I was nervous at my first jury trial, and I was the lawyer. I can only imagine how defendants feel.

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