Bench Trial Vs. Jury Trial: What's Better?

Bench Trial Vs. Jury Trial: What's Better?

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to go to court as a defendant in a case, you have the legal right to choose a jury or bench trial. The right to a jury trial in criminal defense cases is protected by the U.S. Constitution, as well as the constitution of every state. Anyone who may have to make this choice should have a basic understanding of a bench trial vs. jury trial, as the decision can have major ramifications on the outcome of your case.

Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial: The Fundamental Differences

In Oklahoma, and every other state in the U.S., the primary difference between a bench trial and jury trial is who decides the defendant’s fate—that is, who will hear the facts and determine guilt or innocence in a criminal case (or liability in a civil case).

In a bench trial, the judge is the fact-finder and there is no jury. The judge hears the evidence, considers the law, and makes a decision on whether the defendant is guilty or innocent.

In a jury trial, a panel of your peers (community members) decide the case. In felony criminal cases and civil cases involving more than $10,000.00, there are 12 jurors. All other cases, such as those involving misdemeanors, have six jurors. Similar to what you’ve seen on TV, the jury listens to the evidence presented during the trial, receives instructions from the judge on the applicable law, then deliberates and makes a decision. In criminal cases in Oklahoma, the jury’s verdict must be unanimous.

Either party has the right to request a jury trial, but can waive this right in favor of a bench trial. We’ll get into why you’d choose one over the other later, but what’s important to know is this is a strategic decision.

Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial: The Similarities

Despite the differences in who serves as fact-finder and decision-maker for a case, bench trials and jury trials in Oklahoma share several similarities as they are both ways to adjudicate legal disputes. Here’s what’s the same in how criminal cases work, regardless of whether you have a bench or jury trial:

  • Presiding Judge: In both types of trials, a judge presides over the proceedings. The judge makes rulings on legal issues, resolves disputes about evidence and procedure, and instructs the jury on the applicable law in a jury trial.
  • Counsel: Defendants in criminal cases always have the legal right to be represented by an attorney.
  • Legal Standards: The same legal standards and burdens of proof apply in bench and jury trials. In criminal cases, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Courtroom Procedure: The overall courtroom procedure is similar for both bench and jury trials. This includes the way objections are raised and ruled on, the examination of witnesses, and the introduction of evidence.
  • Evidence: The rules on how to present evidence are the same for every trial. These rules are in place to help ensure fairness and legality. Both parties have the opportunity to present witnesses, cross-examine opposing witnesses, and introduce exhibits.
  • Opening Statements and Closing Arguments: Both trials begin with opening statements from each side and conclude with closing arguments, where each side summarizes its case and argues for a favorable outcome based on the evidence presented.
  • Verdict: Whether decided by a judge or a jury, a decision is reached based on evaluating the facts presented during the trial.
  • Appeal: Parties in both bench and jury trials have the right to appeal the verdict to a higher court if they believe a legal error was made during the trial.

As you can see, the commonalities lie mostly in the basic procedural elements, but that’s where the similarities between a bench trial versus jury trial end. There’s no doubt that choosing the type of trial can significantly impact the strategy and outcome of your case.

Factors To Consider When Choosing a Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial

Whether a bench trial and jury trial will be more beneficial depends on the specific facts and circumstances of your case, as well as legal strategies your lawyer can explain. That being said, these are the general considerations that will factors into your decision:

Perception of Fairness

Many people believe that a jury, comprising a diverse group of peers, is more likely to render a fair and unbiased decision than a single judge, who might have individual biases or preconceptions.

Public Opinion

If your case has elements that could elicit sympathy or connect with the community’s values, a jury trial might be preferable because jurors are historically more likely to respond to emotional appeals. Conversely, if your case is high profile and media coverage has stirred up strong public opinion, it may be wiser to opt for a bench trial to avoid the risk of jurors being influenced by the news or community sentiment.

Complexity and Legal Technicalities

In cases with straightforward facts and sympathetic parties, a jury trial is likely a better choice. Judges are trained to be impartial and stick to the law, regardless of their personal feelings, while a jury will be more easily swayed by the human element of a case. But if your case relies heavily on legal technicalities or the interpretation of law, a judge’s expertise is often preferred over that of a lay jury to ensure the facts are understood and law correctly applied.

Efficiency and Cost

Bench trials are quicker and less expensive than jury trials. There is no jury selection or deliberation, and the proceedings are typically more streamlined. If you’re concerned about legal fees or want a fast resolution to your case so you can put a bad situation behind you, a bench trial is the best choice.


Judges are often more predictable than juries. Your lawyer will have information about a judge’s past rulings and tendencies, which can help you guess how they might rule on your particular case. In contrast, juries are a diverse group of people that you know nothing about; plus, their personalities and opinions will inevitably influence each other in unexpected ways during deliberations.

Data and Demographics

Your lawyer will also advise you about a bench trial versus jury trial based on their experience with your type of case and demographic data. For example, there may be data suggesting that juries in a particular jurisdiction are more likely to favor one type of party over another, leading to a strategic preference for a jury trial.

Typical Proceedings in a Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial

As you move forward with your case, it’s important to be prepared for what will happen in the legal proceedings. There is a structured process for how criminal cases work in Oklahoma, from arrest to trial, that’s similar to other jurisdictions in the U.S.

Here is an outline of the typical steps for both a bench and jury trial so you know what to expect with each:

Bench Trial Proceedings

  • Pre-Trial Motions: Before the trial begins, both parties may file pre-trial motions to address certain issues, such as motions to suppress evidence, motions for a directed verdict, or motions to dismiss. The judge will hear arguments and rule on these motions.
  • Opening Statements: Once the trial begins, each side presents an opening statement outlining what they intend to prove during the trial. The prosecution goes first, followed by the defense.
  • Presentation of Evidence: The prosecution has the burden of proof and presents its case first. This involves calling witnesses, presenting physical evidence, and possibly introducing expert testimony. The defense has the right to cross-examine each witness. Once the prosecution rests, the defendant presents its case, following the same process. After the defense rests, the prosecution may present rebuttal evidence to counter the defendant’s case.
  • Objections and Rulings: As the trial unfolds, either side can raise objections to the introduction of certain evidence or the way questions are asked. The judge will rule on each objection immediately.
  • Closing Arguments: After both sides have presented their cases and rested, each side presents a closing argument. This argument summarizes the evidence and explains why the judge should rule in their favor. The prosecution typically goes first and has the opportunity for a rebuttal argument after the defendant's closing argument.
  • Verdict and Sentencing: The judge will consider the facts and evidence presented, apply the relevant law, and announce their final decision (guilty or innocent). Depending on the complexity of your case, the judge could rule immediately after closing arguments or take the matter under advisement and render a decision at a later date (in some cases, this could take months).
  • Post-Trial Motions: After the verdict, either party may file post-trial motions, such as a motion for a new trial.
  • Appeal: If either the prosecution or defense team believes that a legal error was made during the trial, they have the right to appeal the decision to a higher court.

Jury Trial Proceedings

The process here is very similar to that of a bench trial, but there are additional steps due to the jury’s involvement:

  • Jury Selection (Voir Dire): Prospective jurors are questioned by the judge, prosecution, and defense to determine their suitability to serve on the jury. Jurors may be excused for cause, or either side may use peremptory challenges to excuse jurors without stating a reason.
  • Opening Statements: After the jury is selected and sworn in, the trial begins with opening statements from the prosecution and the defense.
  • Presentation of Evidence: This step is the same as with a bench trial. The prosecution presents evidence first and has the burden of proof. The defense can cross-examine witnesses and will present its case when the prosecution rests. The prosecution may present rebuttal evidence to counter the defense's case.
  • Objections and Rulings: Throughout the trial, attorneys for both sides may raise objections to evidence or testimony. The judge rules immediately on these objections, determining what evidence the jury will consider.
  • Closing Arguments: After both sides have presented their evidence and rested their cases, they deliver closing arguments to summarize their positions and persuade the jury.
  • Jury Instructions: The judge provides instructions to the jury, explaining the applicable laws and the standards of proof they must follow when deciding the case.
  • Jury Deliberation and Verdict: The jury deliberates in private to reach a verdict. The verdict must be unanimous in criminal cases. Once a verdict is reached, the jury returns to the courtroom to announce it.
  • Verdict and Sentencing: If the verdict is guilty in a criminal trial, the judge sets a separate date for a sentencing hearing. At that hearing, the judge determines the appropriate sentence for the defendant based on applicable laws and criminal history.
  • Post-Trial Motions and Appeal: Same as with a bench trial, either party may file post-trial motions and the losing party has the option to appeal the verdict to a higher court.

Keep in mind this is a general overview of trial proceedings in Oklahoma, but your trial may have procedural differences based on the specifics of your case.

Get Experienced Help Taking Your Case to Trial

Ultimately, the choice between a bench trial versus jury trial in Oklahoma is a strategic one. Our experienced team at Khalaf Law Firm has a long record of successfully handling both bench and jury trials; and as former prosecutors, we understand both sides of the legal system. We will carefully evaluate the facts and circumstances of your case, so you can make an informed decision on how to get the most favorable resolution, whether it goes to trial or not. Contact us today for a free evaluation.