If you have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor in Houston, you can accept a plea agreement or take your case to trial. If you decide to go to trial, you will be faced with an important decision: whether to ask for a jury trial or judge (bench trial).
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Under the U.S. Constitution, you have a right to a trial by jury, but this might not be the best course of action. The first thing you should do before making this decision is to speak with your attorney. An experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer can advise you as to what the best option is for your case. Your choice may mean the difference between a guilty and not guilty verdict.
Jury Trial Or Judge: What’s The Difference?
Bench (Judge) Trial
When choosing between a jury trial or judge, it’s important to know the pros and cons. In a bench trial, your case is decided by a judge; there is no jury involved.
Bench trials generally move at a faster pace and tend to be slightly less formal than jury trials. There is no need to go through a lengthy jury selection process. It is also not necessary to explain the law to a judge. Most judges have years of legal experience and know to ignore irrelevant, inflammatory and other types of inadmissible evidence. They are more than qualified to evaluate the relevant facts of your case and deliver a fair and impartial ruling.
Circumstances where a defendant might choose a bench trial include cases that involve technical legal issues that jury members might not fully understand or cases with graphic and/or sensational evidence that might be offensive to the members of a jury.
Be aware that in Texas, the judge is an elected official. While they are supposed to be impartial, pressure from the news media and political opponents, especially in a high-profile criminal case, can affect the judge’s decision. In a jury trial all members of the jury must arrive at a unanimous decision in order to convict. In a bench trial the decision of guilt or innocence is determined by one person – the judge – so it’s always a unanimous decision.
In a jury trial, a jury determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
The members of a jury are selected from a pool of eligible citizens. Lawyers on each side have a say as to who sits on the jury. The jury listens as each side makes its arguments and then renders their verdict based on how persuasive the evidence in the case is. In a jury trial, the judge serves as a kind of referee, making decisions regarding the rules and procedures the lawyers and jury members are expected to follow.
Jurists are selected not elected and, for the most part, do not have to deal with the political or social fallout that can result from their verdict. In criminal trials in Texas a jury must arrive at a unanimous decision in order for a defendant to be found guilty of the crime they’re accused of. A skilled defense lawyer only needs to convince one jury member that their client is innocent to obtain a not guilty verdict. This may not be the same as being cleared of the charges, as the state can retry the case if the jury is unable to arrive at a unanimous decision.
There can be disadvantages to a jury trial. Jury trials are more complicated, more time-consuming and more expensive than bench trials. Most jurists have little or no legal training or experience and may be inclined to render verdicts based on emotions rather than objective facts.
Frequently Asked Questions about Criminal Defense
Hiring a lawyer can be stressful, and choosing the right one for you is one of the most important decisions you will make during a criminal case. Here are a few questions to ask when choosing which one to hire:
•Will I get to talk directly to my lawyer throughout the process? Less expensive lawyers usually work in high volume. This often means that you will speak to the lawyer’s assistant instead of directly to the lawyer.
• What kind of experience does the attorney in question have with cases similar to mine? Being charged with any criminal case is serious. You could lose your drivers license, job, financial aid and your freedom. Have they worked with your kind of case before? Who trained them?
• Has the attorney tried a lot of cases in front of juries? If they have, ask them what their success rate is.
Contrary to what an officer might tell you, videotaping an encounter with police is not only legal, but it is very smart. Video of the incident can often corroborate your story, and can be powerful evidence in your case.
You do not require the consent of anyone else on the scene. And the police do not have the right to seize your phone, demand to see footage, or delete photos or videos.
Unlike a person’s credit report, which usually only goes back 7 – 10 years, a person’s criminal record will remain on the public record indefinitely. In Texas, the two ways to make sure that your arrest isn’t following you around for the rest of your life are expungements and orders of non-disclosure.
Expunction is a civil action in which an individual requests that all records relating to an arrest be sealed — effectively removing or “expunging” them from the public record. A person who has successfully obtained an expunction can legally say that the arrest never happened.
If a person is not eligible for expunction in Harris County, they may be eligible for a “Texas Record Sealing,” also known as Orders of Non–Disclosure. This does not completely remove an arrest from your record like that of a criminal expungement, but it does seal it from public record.
An arrest record in Texas cannot be expunged or sealed for certain crimes, including capital murder, sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, possession of child pornography, child endangerment, violating a protective order and family violence.
Get Advice from an Experienced Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you or a loved one have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony crime in Houston, there are many tough decisions you must make in preparation for your case in addition to deciding on a jury trial or judge. The first and best decision would be to consult with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney like Lisa Shapiro Strauss.
Don’t put off making that important decision – call the Lisa Shapiro Strauss Law Firm at 713-449-9922 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. We’ve been successfully defending clients accused of assault, shoplifting, DWI, DUI, domestic violence and other criminal offenses in Houston for almost 20 years. We are available to discuss the facts in your case and help you make the kind of informed decisions that will get you the best possible outcome for your case.