Understanding The Pros And Cons Of A Jury Trial
Popular culture emphasizes the importance of a jury in a criminal trial. Movies and television often show juries as the final decision-makers, determining the fate of a defendant. Because of this, many people do not realize that defendants may have the legal ability in certain circumstances to opt-out of a jury trial and have a judge decide the case. In some cases, a jury trial may not be the best choice.
The experienced criminal defense attorneys at the Law Office of Faraji A Rosenthall have years of experience in every aspect of the criminal justice system, and we understand the pros and cons of a jury trial. If you are facing criminal charges in Virginia, call us at 703-934-0101 for a free consultation.
What Is a Jury Trial?
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to have their case heard by a jury of their peers. In a criminal case, the role of the jury is to hear the evidence and decide issues of fact. On the other hand, the judge’s responsibility is to determine what law is applicable and instruct the jury on how to apply the facts to the law. Based on the jury’s determination, they must reach a unanimous verdict finding the defendant guilty or not guilty. Under Virginia’s Constitution, a defendant cannot be found guilty of a crime without the unanimous consent of the jury.
The jury is selected through a process called voir dire. A random group of prospective jurors is invited to appear in court, and the attorneys for both parties, along with the judge, ask the prospective jurors questions to determine that they are competent, unbiased, and otherwise fit to serve on the jury. The attorneys move to strike jurors, either for cause or for no reason at all, called a peremptory challenge. A felony case in Virginia requires 12 jurors, while a misdemeanor
case requires only 7 jurors.
What Is the Alternative to a Jury Trial?
There are ways to avoid a jury trial. First, a defendant may choose to accept a plea bargain and avoid a criminal trial altogether, or a defendant may wish to have a judge hear your case, which is called a bench trial.
Many criminal charges are never tried in court because the charges are either withdrawn, dismissed, nolle prossed (abandoned or dismissed), or otherwise disposed of before a defendant’s guilt or innocence was determined. Another reason most charges never make it to trial is that prosecutors offer plea deals to defendants, where they offer the defendant a reduced charge or sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. The reason that prosecutors do this is that they are often inundated with cases and do not have the capacity to try all of them in a court of law. Sometimes, the plea bargain is beneficial to the defendant, but sometimes, the defendants would achieve a better result at trial than the plea bargain offers. Visiting with an experienced defense attorney at the Law Office of Faraji A Rosenthall can help you better understand whether a plea deal is beneficial in your criminal case.
A bench trial is almost exactly the same as a jury trial, with the exception of the presence of a jury. The judge’s role is not only to determine which law applies and make all of the procedural and evidentiary decisions during the trial, but the judge is also responsible for deciding issues of fact and determining whether the defendant is guilty or not.
Advantages of a Jury Trial
For many defendants, the thought of an impartial panel deciding their case is more comforting than leaving their fate to a single prosecutor or a judge. There are numerous pros of a jury trial.
Juries are Laypeople, Not Lawyers
The reason why the jury process is ingrained in America’s criminal justice system is because it democratizes the prosecution process. While judges and prosecutors handle dozens of cases every day and sometimes have to dehumanize the defendants, jurors are more likely to be able to see the defendant’s side of the story and provide an impartial and fair verdict. Theoretically, these jurors will be unbiased and competent, based on the outcome of the voir dire. Whereas a judge may be influenced by personal preferences, such as their relationship with the prosecutor or defense counsel, a jury is more likely to be impartial as they are typically outsiders from the criminal justice system.
Because jurors are generally average members of the community, they may be influenced by their emotions, which can sometimes benefit criminal defendants. If an attorney can compellingly present a defendant’s side of the story, the jury may take that into consideration more than a judge would in a bench trial.
Disadvantages of a Jury Trial
On the other hand, a jury trial can be the wrong choice for some defendants. Below are some of the cons of a jury trial.
Though the voir dire process was created to produce an unbiased panel of jurors, it is well-known that juries do not always form a representative sample of the community. If one or more jurors come into the trial with biases that influence their decision, then it can destroy the integrity of the entire jury. Remember that the verdict must be unanimous, otherwise, it can result in a mistrial.
Another reason that some defendants do not want to submit their case to a jury is simply the uncertainty of it. Some defendants would prefer to accept a plea bargain because they at least know what their sentence will be, whereas a trial may result in more severe consequences than the plea bargain. An experienced criminal defense lawyer may help you review any potential plea bargains on the table and determine whether to accept or allow your case to proceed to trial.
While sometimes a sympathetic jury may benefit a defendant, other cases are less sympathetic. In some cases, the evidence against you may appear negative or unfavorable, and the emotions of the jury may actually work to the defendant’s disadvantage. On the other hand, in a bench trial, the judge may apply the law more impartially and be less influenced by irrelevant, prejudicial material that might otherwise influence a jury.
Contact Our Virginia Criminal Defense Attorneys Today
At the Law Office of Faraji A. Rosenthall, we may be able to guide your decision as to whether to accept a guilty plea or allow your case to proceed to trial. Whether to waive your right to a jury trial is a major decision, so you should consider speaking with one of our experienced attorneys for advice about the pros and cons of a jury trial. Contact us at 703-934-0101 to set up a free