When facing criminal charges, the possibility that the case will be settled before you ever make it to court is very high. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) reports that fewer than 3% of criminal cases ever make it to trial in this country. That is true for both state and federal charges. What happens instead? In the majority of cases, a plea agreement is reached, allowing defendants to accept lesser charges in exchange for a reduced sentence and/or other concessions. Even so, every criminal defendant is guaranteed the right to a trial by a jury of their peers, and that option is available regardless of the charges. In some situations, defendants waive that right in favor of a bench trial where a judge determines the outcomes. Which option is best?
Understanding a Plea Deal
There is no single correct answer to that question. Every case is different, and a defendant must carefully weigh the opportunities and possible consequences of each with the counsel of a trusted defense attorney. Some of the issues that should be considered if a plea bargain is offered include:
- When a defendant agrees to a guilty plea, it will likely result in a more bearable sentence than in the worst-case scenario of a guilty verdict, so if the prosecution has a strong case, it may be worth considering;
- Trials can be extremely expensive, when you add up attorneys fees and court costs;
- If you plead guilty, it will put a stain on your record, which could have long-term consequences in terms of employment, housing, relationships, and more;
- The potential of a not-guilty verdict and escaping penalties altogether may be promising.
Bench Trial or Jury Trial?
In the event you do decide to move forward with a trial, are your chances better with a jury or a bench trial? While it is definitely impossible to know for sure, there are some factors worth taking note of:
- If the case is high-profile, it may be difficult to find impartial individuals to serve on the jury.
- Some judges have a past record that gives a clue about how they rule in particular types of cases. Are you looking at someone who has a record of lenience or someone who throws the book at defendants in similar cases?
- If your case relies strongly on highly technical issues, they may be beyond a jury’s understanding, whereas a judge understands the intricacies of the law. It is possible that an objective judge who is accustomed to applying the facts to the law will give you a better shot at justice.
- If the facts of the case are inflammatory, a jury might be influenced by juicy, though immaterial, factors that a judge would be able to ignore.
- On the other hand, are there mitigating facts that might make you seem more sympathetic to a jury but that a judge would consider inconsequential based on other factors?