Defendants in the U S have the right to a bench trial or a trial by jury. In U.S. law, most civil trials are bench trials unless a party requests a jury. But a criminal bench trial will only occur if the right to a jury trial is waived.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed. However, a bench trial, can in some situations be preferable to a trial by jury. In the case of a criminal trial, in most states the criminal defendant alone has the ability to waive the right to a jury. In a U.S. civil trial, one of the parties must request a jury trial and pay a small fee, otherwise a bench trial will result.
A bench trial is a trial held before a judge sitting without a jury. The general provisions for a trial by bench are laid out in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. With bench trials, the judge plays the role of the jury as finder of fact, in addition to making conclusions of law. These are usually faster than jury trials due to the fewer number of formalities required. A bench trial has some distinctive characteristics, but it is basically the same as a jury trial without the jury. For example, the rules of evidence and methods of objection are the same in a bench trial as in a jury trial. Some judicial proceedings, such as probate, family law or juvenile matters, do not usually utilize juries. In such courts, judges routinely adjudicate both matters of fact and law.
Under the rules of Federal Criminal Procedure, the defendant is entitled to a bench trial only if
- the defendant waives a jury trial in writing;
- the government consents; and
- the court approves a bench trial.
In certain instances, a bench trial could prove to be to a defendant’s advantage. This type of situation might arise if the legal question in the case is based on technical arguments requiring the type of legal distinctions that only a judge is likely to understand. In addition, a defendant who faces a weak case, but has an extensive prior record, may fear that if s/he testifies, a jury would tune out the facts of the case and focus on the prior record.