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Judge and Gavel

Bench Trials vs. Jury Trials in Houston Child Sex Crime Cases

Published: Nov 18, 2019 in Criminal Defense

The Sixth Amendment guarantees your right to a speedy public trial decided by an impartial jury or your peers if you have been accused of a crime.

Despite this right, some defendants and their lawyers choose to have their case heard by a judge only. This is called a bench trial. Whether it’s a good idea or not to waive your right to a jury trial depends on the situation. For instance in a Houston child sex crime case it will depend on the nature of the allegations, the defenses your lawyer wants to use, and the evidence and witnesses available to the prosecution.

At the Law Offices of Ned Barnett, we’ve achieved countless victories for our clients in both bench and jury trials. Regardless of the option we choose, we zealously advocate for the best possible outcome at every stage of the criminal justice process, and explore every possible avenue for defending the case.

If you’ve been accused of a sex crime against a child, the stakes couldn’t be higher. contact attorney Ned Barnett today at (713) 222-6767 for a free and confidential consultation about your case.

When is a Bench Trial a Good Idea?

Article 1.13(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure allows a defendant to waive their right to a jury trial in any case except those involving a capital felony for which the state is seeking the death penalty.

To waive your right, you must make the request in person and in open court. You will also need to obtain the prosecutor’s consent to a bench trial in writing, after which the court may grant your request.

Some defendants and their attorneys choose bench trials for the following reasons:

  • You’ve been accused of heinous crimes–Judges may be better at setting aside their emotions and reaching a verdict based on law and fact, as opposed to passion. In child sex assault cases, jurors may be so overwhelmed with emotions that they cannot reach a decision based on reason.
  • You want to optimize your ability to appeal–It’s very difficult to appeal a jury verdict because juries are not under any obligation to explain their verdicts. What goes on in the jury room, or in the jurors’ minds, is irrelevant except in cases of blatant misconduct. But if the judge reaches the wrong verdict in a bench trial, it may be possible to appeal their decision if it does not follow from the evidence presented at trial.
  • The Judge Has a Reputation for Fairness–Every jury is different, and therefore represents a big unknown factor in criminal cases. But the judge that will hear your case is likely well known to your defense lawyer, who may anticipate to some extent how they will react to the case and the evidence.
  • You are not a sympathetic defendant–A jury can sometimes focus too much on appearances. Criminal defendants who fit the stereotype of a drug user, gang member, or dangerous criminal may be at a big disadvantage in front of a jury. Judges in most cases will not focus on appearances, and look to the facts and law instead.
  • You have limited resources–Jury trials can take a long time, and at the end the judge may need to declare a mistrial if the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision. In many cases, the prosecutor would then seek another trial. This can result in an extremely long and expensive process. Some defendants may prefer to take the faster bench trial route–especially if there are other reasons for taking the case out of the jury’s hands.

If all or most of these circumstances apply to a case, then the defendant and their legal team may want to consider a bench trial. But in the majority of criminal cases, a bench trial will not put the defendant at a significant advantage. Usually it’s best for defendants to place their fate in the hands of a well-selected jury.

Why a Jury Trial Is Usually the Best Option

There’s a reason why the constitution guarantees your right to a jury trial. Generally, a defendant stands a better chance of obtaining a positive resolution when a jury hears their case. Here’s why:

  • Convincing 12 minds instead of one–In a bench trial, only the judge needs to make up their mind and hand down a verdict. But in a jury trial, 12 people need to unanimously agree to the outcome in order to hand down an effective verdict. If your lawyer can convince just one or a few jurors to take your side, you will not get convicted. The prosecutor may request a new trial, but in some cases, they will prefer to not waste state resources to prosecute a case again that might also result in a hung jury.
  • Judges have biases too–Judges have extensive legal training and an obligation to rule fairly. But not all judges are good, and many can be motivated by significant biases towards certain categories of defendants. Sometimes, judges are elected officials with an obligation to answer to their constituents to be tough on crimes–especially charges like child sexual assault.
  • Judges might consider inadmissible evidence–Much of the trial process is spent arguing over what evidence the jury can consider. These arguments take place without the jury present so that they will absolutely not consider inadmissible or prejudicial evidence in their deliberations. But at a bench trial, the judge will be aware of all of this inadmissible evidence, and may not be able to keep themselves from considering it.
  • Your lawyer has a say in who sits on the jury–Your lawyer can use the “voire dire” process and peremptory challenges to remove potentially dangerous or biased jurors from the jury pool. An experienced lawyer will know what red flags to look for in jurors during the jury selection for child sex crime cases. While a perfect jury is rarely achievable, your lawyer can greatly enhance your chances of getting a good case result by removing obviously biased jurors.

For these reasons, most defendants and their lawyers choose to exercise their right to have their trial heard by a jury. Nonetheless, there can be circumstances where a bench trial may be the best path. If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime against a minor in Houston, The Law Offices of Ned Barnett can help. Contact us today at (713) 222-6767 for your free and confidential consultation.