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Why Do Defendants Sometimes Waive the Right to Jury Trials?

A judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final.
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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 14 April 2014
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In most criminal prosecutions in the US, a defendant has an absolute right to have his or her case decided by a jury of his or her peers. The right, however, may be exercised by the defendant or waived. There are a number of reasons why defendants may choose to waive their right to jury trials, but the most common reasons are the expense involved, the risks involved if the defendant loses, and the option to accept a favorable plea agreement in lieu of a trial.

Jury trials can be expensive for both the state and for the defendant. The cost of bringing a jury pool in for voir dire, the time involved in selecting the jury members, and the extra expense of expert witnesses needed for jury trials can add up quickly for the state. A defense attorney will also charge the defendant accordingly, meaning jury trials are more expensive for the defendant as well. If a trial is inevitable, both sides may agree to waive the jury trial in favor a trial in front of a judge, or bench trial. A bench trial allows both sides to present and argue their case to a judge instead of a jury, thereby reducing the costs.

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Risk is another important factor for defendants when they are deciding whether to waive jury trials. A jury is made up of randomly selected members of the community. Although they are instructed about the law, they have not studied it as a judge has, and therefore a jury often bases its verdict on evidence that one side or the other felt was unimportant or insubstantial. Jury trials are a gamble for defendants — they usually win big or lose big. Winning means an acquittal and the defendant goes free, while losing typically means a much harsher sentence then was offered through plea negotiations prior to trial.

In most cases, a defendant will be offered a plea bargain prior to the case proceeding to trial. A plea bargain allows the defendant to plead guilty to all or some of the charges in return for a predetermined sentence that is usually significantly less than the defendant would face at a trial. The benefit to the state of offering plea bargains is that they avoid the risk of acquittals and the expense of jury trials. The defendant also avoids the risk of conviction at trial and incurring a much more lengthy or serious sentence as a result.

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Discuss this Article

Cageybird
Post 2

I think I'd rather take my chances on a trial by jury than get a judge who had a reputation for harsh punishments. Hopefully I'll never be in that kind of trouble, but I know some good criminal defense attorneys and they can usually find a way to reach a jury of regular people. I'm not so sure they would have that kind of ability during a bench trial. I'd probably take a plea deal rather than risk facing a tough judge.

Inaventu
Post 1

Having been a part of a mock jury myself, I think I would seriously consider waiving my right to a jury trial and agree to a bench trial. I don't think regular jurors know enough about the law to render a verdict based solely on legal issues. A jury trial is more about one set of lawyers pitting themselves against another set of lawyers. The defendant's true guilt or innocence may be a minor point compared to the back-and-forth arguments between skilled debaters.

When I was on the mock jury, there were other jurors who just wanted to vote "guilty" and go home. Some of us tried to make valid arguments about the evidence, but others only chose to focus on one or two points, like prior convictions or gun ownership. It was like the rest of the testimony didn't matter. I wouldn't want my own life to depend on the opinions of 12 ordinary people. I'd much rather let a competent and experienced judge weight the evidence and render a verdict.

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