In criminal cases in Minnesota, defendants have the right to choose between having their case decided by a jury or a judge. Understanding the pros and cons of jury trials vs bench trials may be important to the outcome of the case.
Many Minneapolis criminal lawyers will recommend a jury trial vs a bench trial unless circumstances warrant simpler proceedings. This often provides a better outcome for the accused since the jury’s decision must be unanimous for a defendant to be found guilty and sentencing to follow in Minnesota.
In a jury trial, a panel of jurors acts as fact finders that evaluate the evidence and render a verdict based on presented facts. In misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases in Minnesota, the panel includes six jurors. In felony cases, twelve jurors are used. Since all jurors must agree that the defendant is guilty for a conviction to occur, the larger number of people is often attractive to defendants who are deciding between a jury and a judge. Although jurors hear evidence presented by a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor, they are sometimes persuaded by convincing deliveries. Compared to jurors, judges are rarely influenced by emotions in a case. They usually decide a case based strictly on evidence, laws, and legal nuances. Important factors to consider in a jury trial include:
- Jury trials typically last longer and incur higher legal costs
- Jury trials often have more experienced criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors
- Jurors are often more sympathetic to a defendant than judges
- Jury trials may be a better choice when a guilty verdict has serious consequences such as steep fines and jail time
In a bench trial, there is no jury. The trial takes place only in front of a judge who acts as the fact finder, listens to the evidence, then renders a guilty or not guilty verdict. The judge decides the credibility of the evidence presented at trial and also decides what happens at the trial according to laws and rules of procedure. Although bench trials take less time, are less formal, and are less costly, they are not generally used in felony cases. In these cases, the evidence is much more complicated and guilty verdicts often carry steep penalties including jail time.