By Dallas and Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy F. Rosenthal
Here is the equation as to how any criminal trial in Texas works. The proper law + the facts = the verdict.
Judges always determine the appropriate law to apply. Then the facts are applied to the law to reach the verdict. A jury determines the facts, but if both parties agree — then the judge can determine the facts instead. The latter is a known as a “bench trial” or “trial by Court” which is commonly known as a “TBC” in the courthouse.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant a right by jury trial. Generally speaking its the defendant’s choice whether to choose a judge or a jury. Texas prosecutors have recently asserted that the State of Texas also has a right to a jury trial as well… and therefore, they argue, that the only way the parties can have a TBC is by agreement. Their assertion is largely unchallenged even though it’s legally unclear. Practically speaking, then, both parties agree to waive a jury.
Here’s a practical example of how a jury trial works — in an assault case where the defendant claims self-defense, the Judge will conduct the trial, impanel the jury, and decides what evidence is legally admissible. Once the evidence is concluded, the judge will decide (1) if the evidence legally sufficient to support a conviction; (2) if the defendant legally raised self-defense; and (3) what jury instructions to give so that the jury understands how to decide the facts. The jury then deliberates and reaches their verdict based on the jury charge.
For a TBC, the Judge merely listens to all the evidence, rules on objections, and then renders a verdict — often without much deliberation.
There are tons of variables to consider if you’re presented with the option of waiving a jury and asking a judge to decide the case. The Judge’s history and reputation and obviously the strength of the case must be considered and weighed against the local jury pool.
Judges prefer TBC’s because they’re far more efficient than jury trials. They’re far quicker, generally less formal, and don’t involve having to manage a jury pool. Just because judge prefer it, though, doesn’t make it the right choice.
After all, a criminal defense lawyer isn’t in the rights waiving business!
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any case you should consult an attorney directly.