Grand Jury, Petit Jury, and Bench Trials: What’s the Difference?
Most people believe that when you get charged with a crime, you will typically have a trial and bring in a jury to determine whether you should be convicted or not. But what many people do not know is that you, as the defendant, actually have the choice of how you want your case to be heard in Killeen. You will typically be given the choice of having a petit jury or a bench trial—but for felony offenses your case will usually go to the grand jury first.
Without realizing that there were even choices, it can be confusing as you weigh your options. Understanding the difference between each option is very important. However, we always recommend reaching out to an experienced criminal defense attorney to talk further through your case as well.
A grand jury does not actually determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. The purpose of a grand jury is to determine if there is in fact enough evidence to indict, or formally charge, the person in question.
A Grand jury:
- Hear only criminal cases, like felonies
- Consist of 16-23 people on the jury
- Only determine if there is probable cause for the charge
- Are closed to the public
- Do not allow the defendant to appear before the jury
Petit jury trials
This is just a fancy name for your standard jury trial. A petit jury can be convened in State or Federal court. In a criminal case, the jury will listen to evidence, witness testimony, and the defense’s testimony. Afterwards, they will go into a private room to deliberate and will not reappear before the court until they come to a unanimous decision on whether the defendant is innocent or guilty.
Petit jury trials also:
- Hear both civil and criminal cases
- Allow a jury to determine the verdict
- Consist of 6-12 people
- Are open to the public
Bench trials are different from a petit jury trial in that only the judge is giving the verdict. Think of it as the judge being the sole juror. The judge will listen to both the prosecution and defense just like in a regular trial, but they will not talk with anyone else before they make a verdict. If you or your attorney believe that it may be tough to convince an entire jury of your innocence because there are so many emotional factors at play or you simply do not have enough time to go through the process, then a bench trial may be the better option.
Bench trials also:
- Hear both civil and criminal cases
- Do not use a jury
- Are open to the public
Reasons to choose a petit jury trial
Per the Constitution, every person has a right to a jury trial. Depending on your case, you may wish to seek a petit jury trial because:
- Defendant has the right to testify. Along with their attorney and the help of witnesses, they can appear before the court to plead to the jury in their favor.
- Jurors are specifically selected. During the selection process, both the defense and prosecution must agree on each juror on the trial. This can help your case knowing there are people on it who your attorney finds acceptable.
- Judge will step in if necessary. If they feel as though the jury is not following strict instructions, like talking about the case outside of the courtroom, then the judge will intervene. This may result in declaring a mistrial and granting a new one so you can have a fair trial.
- Emotions can come into play. Petit jury trials are especially helpful for cases that can pull on the juror’s heartstrings. Along with the facts, the way jurors feel can help them come to a verdict.
Nevertheless, this type of case is not right for everyone. Some of the risks with a jury trial are:
- It can take a long time. Jury selection itself can take days, then the hearing itself takes time as well. Even once that is all said and done, jury deliberation can last from minutes to days.
- Jurors have no legal experience. This may not particularly matter depending on the details of your case, but it is something to keep in mind.
- You never know what will happen in a jury trial or if their emotions will get the best of them in a way that does not benefit you.
Reasons to choose a bench trial
Not every case is ideal to put before a room of jurors. You can waive this right and elect to have a bench trial instead. Some of the “pros” for a bench trial are:
- Faster than a jury trial. Since there is no jury selection or deliberation process, this cuts down on a lot of time.
- Judge can weigh in. Unlike other types of trials, a judge has the ability to stop something like a cross examination in order to ask a question.
- Irrelevant information is tossed out. While this is also technically true in petit jury trials, jurors may have a harder time putting that information out of their mind than a judge would. A judge is supposed to be less emotional and look only at the facts.
- Legal experience. If your case is particularly complex, leaving the verdict up to someone who knows the law very well could work in your favor.
As always, there are always some negatives to each option. You may not want to pursue a bench trial because of who is determining the verdict. The prosecutor also does not have to try nearly as hard to convince the room full of jurors in this case, because there’s only one—the judge. Since the judge is the only person determining whether you’re innocent or guilty in a bench trial, the odds of it going in your favor are 50/50.
If you are facing criminal charges in Central Texas, do not go through the process alone. Deciding which type of trial to move forward with is tough, and you should be aware of all the risks involved. Deciding on something this big alone could ultimately lead you to a guilty verdict. The criminal defense lawyers at Mary Beth Harrell Law Firm in Killeen and Copperas Cove defend clients throughout all of Central Texas, including Temple, Belton, and Waco, as well as Coryell, Bell and McLennan Counties. Our experienced attorneys will weigh the pros and cons with you and help you determine the best foot forward on which type of trial is right for your case. Call our office or submit our contact form today to schedule a consultation.
I’ve dedicated my legal career to defending my clients. I demand all the evidence. I investigate all the facts, the so-called witnesses and even the police officers. I make it my business to know the law. Cases can be won or lost before you even set foot inside the courtroom.
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