How to Decide on a Bench or Jury Trial in NJ
Key Considerations for Bench vs. Jury Trials in New Jersey
The right to a trial by a jury of your peers is a fundamental constitutional right of federal and state criminal defendants who have been charged with indictable crimes in New Jersey. That means they have a right to be adjudicated guilty or innocent of a crime by ordinary people just like themselves, not legal professionals. When a defendant chooses a jury trial, the court administration assembles a panel of jurors from the community who will answer the prosecutor and defense attorney’s questions about their ability to serve impartially as jurors. The selected jurors then determine a defendant’s fate by weighing evidence and arguments. However, each defendant can allow a judge to decide guilt or innocence in a bench trial, which may be advantageous in certain situations.
While most defendants opt for jury trials when facing felony charges of the first, second, third, or fourth degree, a bench trial can sometimes be a better option. However, the decision is a legal and tactical one best left to a legal professional. Besides, waiving a fundamental constitutional right takes work. A judge or prosecutor may object to a defendant’s choosing a bench trial. If you face criminal charges in New Jersey, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney at The Tormey Law Firm to consider the benefits and drawbacks of the jury and bench trial. Our accomplished team of NJ criminal defense lawyers has the experience to assess juror attitudes about the charges, the probability of a not guilty verdict, and the expediency involved in prosecuting your case by a jury or judge. Our criminal trial team includes former prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys who have spent decades considering and advising clients on the best approach to their defenses. Contact us at (201)-556–1570 to receive a free consultation today.
Pros of Having a New Jersey Jury Trial in a Criminal Case
In essence, a jury trial is a fundamental right that protects those accused of breaking the law against an unfair advantage and government abuse. A jury ensures that the judge and prosecutor follow the laws and rules and that the state punishes only the guilty based on compelling evidence. A jury helps check the government’s power to imprison people for insufficient or non-existent reasons. It protects an accused against biased prosecutors and judges. Juries are normally better than judges in criminal cases in other ways as well. For one, they weigh evidence in the context of their own life experience and shared knowledge, not strictly by the amount of evidence one side presents. Jurors get to consider which evidence is significant and which is not in deciding guilt or innocence. In contrast, a legal professional may determine a case less on common sense than legal theories.
Another advantage is a defendant’s participation in voir dire, the jury selection process. While your attorney asks jurors questions to root out bias, you could observe jurors who decide your case, getting a feel or intuition about whether a juror will be fair or sympathetic to your story. And since a guilty verdict requires that all jurors agree on a verdict, the odds are better for fostering uncertainty among at least one of 12 jurors than one judge.
Moreover, selecting, instructing, and advising a jury are all strict legal procedures necessary for a fair trial. When deviations taint a jury, like juror misconduct or improper judicial instructions from a prosecutor or judge, you may have reason to file an appeal. An appeal allows a higher court to review specific legal or procedural violations that influenced the jury to make an incorrect decision.
Why Would Someone Choose a Bench Trial over a Jury Trial in New Jersey?
On the other hand, jurors may respond emotionally to the alleged crimes, especially if they are particularly gory or taboo, like murder, sexual assault, or child pornography. Specific subject matters that offend a person’s sensibilities may result in a guilty verdict more often than other less seemingly offensive cases, like fraud or theft. Other dangers are the inherent biases and prejudices that jurors carry. They may consciously or unconsciously vote for a guilty verdict because of ethnicity, race, gender, age, or sexual orientation prejudices. Sometimes, the defendant looks like someone a juror does not like, which may influence their decision.
Additionally, jurors may need help understanding complex cases involving highly technical, legal, financial, or scientific evidence and issues. Jurors come to a topic with various levels of education and experience, which generally helps defendants but may be detrimental in complicated cases. A judge is more likely to understand complex subject matters, having been exposed to many cases with various issues, and can determine your guilt or innocence based on intricate evidence. Plus, a jury trial requires additional costs.
Another reason to choose a bench trial is economy. Bench trials are less expensive as there is no jury fee, and the trial tends to be quicker to resolve. Jury selection and jury instructions take time. A judge must explain the law and duties to the jurors. In a bench trial, a defendant can shave days off a trial by eliminating a jury.
What is More Effective a Bench Trial or a Jury Trial?
The decision between a jury trial and a bench trial is not a binary one. It is highly complicated and each determination must be weighed given the totality of the circumstances and the unique factors of the case. In complex cases, a judge may better follow the law and use reason rather than an emotional or confused juror. In a bench trial, the judge is the decision maker and the controller of the courtroom proceedings. Therefore, the sensitive or complex criminal matter is sometimes better off in the hands of a judge as the decider of guilt or innocence. After all, their job is to rule without prejudice.
The advantage of having a judge who follows the law unemotionally is also a disadvantage. While a jury may feel sympathy for a defendant’s circumstances and poor decision-making that got them in trouble, a judge may be more unaffected by sympathy appeals. Merely following the law, a judge can approach a case automatically, not emotionally. Plus, a judge is more predictable, as attorneys typically know how a judge leans on specific legal matters. They understand how a judge may likely rule.
In contrast to jury trials, however, a bench trial will never end in a hung jury when even one juror disagrees with a guilty verdict. Also, a judge’s role as head of the proceedings is a disadvantage to a defendant. A judge must decide which evidence can go to a jury and which cannot. For example, highly incriminating evidence unlawfully obtained by the police is likely to be challenged by the defense. The judge decides whether a jury never sees some evidence. And yet, a judge who considers evidence in a suppression motion may be influenced by it, regardless of their impartiality.
How do You Request a Non-Jury Trial in New Jersey?
New Jersey Rule 1:8-1 states that a jury trial is the default for criminal actions requiring jury trials unless the defendant makes a written request to waive a jury trial. The prosecuting attorney must receive notice of the request, and a judge must approve it. A court holds a hearing on a contested waiver request, after which a judge decides whether to allow a bench trial.
Should I Waive my Right to a Trial by Jury in NJ?
After discussing the advantages and disadvantages of a bench trial with your attorney, you may find that a bench trial makes sense, given the strength of your case, the type of crimes you are charged with, and other considerations, including the practicality and cost of a jury trial. Giving up your fundamental right to a jury trial is a grave decision not to be made lightly. You must have the advice of a seasoned criminal defense lawyer who can carefully weigh all the pros and cons before you decide. At The Tormey Law Firm, our experience on both sides of the criminal justice system has made us thoroughly prepared to help you make the optimal choice for your case. Our advice can serve as a critical asset in your decision-making. If you have been charged with a criminal offense in New Jersey, including in Bergen County, Essex County, Passaic County, Union County, Middlesex County, or Ocean County, call (201)-556-1570 or contact us online to discuss the possibility of a bench trial with an attorney who can help. Our firm is available 24/7 to assist you and consultations are absolutely free.