In Tarrant County, defendants may choose between bench trials and jury trials. Theoretically, the prosecutor must also waive a jury trial. But I have never personally seen a case where the prosecutor would not waive a jury trial.
In bench trials, the judge weighs all the evidence and makes a decision. In jury trials, either six or twelve people weigh the evidence and make a decision. There are six jurors in misdemeanors and twelve in felonies.
The burden of proof is the same in all types of trials. The prosecutor must establish each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Because they only take a couple of hours instead of a couple of days, the bench trial date waiting list is much shorter than the jury trial waiting list. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it is a bad thing.
Especially if the judge has been on the bench for several terms, bench trials are usually a little more predictable than jury trials. A jury may fixate on seemingly inconsequential details and base their decision on them. Judges usually have no such tendencies. Moreover, their decisions are not from left field. If Judge X heard 1,000 DWI trials last year and declared 1,000 defendants not guilty, defendant number 1,001 is probably in for the same fate.
Finally, bench trials are a little more informal than jury trials. That aspect could be a difference-maker if the defendant is a little rough around the edges or is unappealing from a purely appearance standpoint.
In a bench trial, attorneys must convince 100 percent of the factfinders (one out of one) that the defendant might not be guilty. But in a felony trial, an attorney must only convince 8 percent (one out of twelve). So, from a numbers standpoint, jury trials are clearly more favorable than bench trials.
But statistics alone do not decide these outcomes. A Tarrant County defendant might wait a year for an initial jury trial date. That date could be reset for many reasons, such as the non-appearance of a witness. Once again, sometimes that wait is a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing. A year is a long time to have a case hanging over your head, but memories fade substantially in that time frame.
Jury trials are also more formal than bench trials. Appearance does not matter in bench trials. Defendants who are in jail usually appear in their jail clothes. But appearance does matter in jury trials. For example, juries are statistically less likely to convict defendants who wear glasses.
The choice of a trial mode is a very fact-specific one. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth, contact Herreth Law. Home and jail visits are available.