Criminal defendants have a right to have the government prove the allegations at trial “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what kind of trial should a defendant have, a jury trial or bench trial? The answer: it depends on the charge. In Utah, a defendant can choose between a jury trial or a bench trial.
If a defendant chooses to have a jury trial, the defendant is entitled to have people from their community listen to the evidence and render a verdict. The size of the jury is based on Utah Code 78B-1-104 and depends on the allegation:
- 12 jurors in a first-degree felony that involves the death penalty;
- 8 jurors in a first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree felonies;
- 6 jurors in a class A misdemeanor;
- 4 jurors in a class B and class C misdemeanor
In a jury trial, the prosecutor must convince every juror that the defendant is guilty of each and every element of the allegation. The jury must be unanimous to convict a defendant.
Simply put, a person is eligible for a jury trial when incarceration is at risk. If incarceration is not at risk, then you cannot have a jury trial and must have a bench trial.
If a defendant chooses a bench trial, only the judge will listen to the evidence and render a verdict. The procedural and evidentiary rules are the same as a jury trial. The only difference is how many people decide the verdict.
If you are charged with an infraction, you are not entitled to a jury trial because you are not at risk of going to jail.
Which Is Better: A Jury Trial or Bench Trial?
We recommend a jury trial because it’s better to convince multiple people that you are not-guilty rather than one person. In a jury trial, all jurors have to be unanimous–if we can convince one person that you are not guilty, then you won’t be convicted. In a bench trial, we only advocate to one person: the judge.
The other advantage of a jury trial is that the prosecutor must work harder for a conviction in a jury trial. A prosecutor must be persuasive to everyone, not just one person. A jury trial also takes much more time to present because it takes longer–a one day jury trial will take all day, while a bench trial will take 1-3 hours total.
While we recommend a jury trial in most cases, a bench trial is the better choice when:
- The defendant wants the case resolved quickly. Bench trials are easier to schedule because a judge can have multiple bench trials in one day. A judge can only have one jury trial in one day.
- The issues are complicated and technical. Judges are legally trained, so unlike community members without legal training, judges understand complicated nuances or technical arguments. Jurors may render a verdict based on emotion, while a judge will render a verdict based on facts.
The decision to have a jury trial or bench trial is an important one and should only be decided after speaking with your attorney. Contact us today!