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Bench trials rare, local experts say

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | MARCH 26, 2009 7:40 AM

Despite having two high-profile bench trials in Iowa City in a month, they remain uncommon, local experts said.

Curtis Fry, who is accused of second-degree murder, and Micah Matthews, who was found guilty of first- and second-degree kidnapping and first-degree burglary, both elected to request a bench trial — a proceeding in which a judge hears arguments and renders a decision rather than a panel of jurors.

Fry’s trial concluded March 13, though Sixth District Judge Mitchell Turner has not yet reached a verdict. Sixth District Judge Douglas Russell has scheduled Matthews’ sentencing for April 17, according to online court records.

Deciding to present facts only to a judge is generally a last resort, local attorney Patrick Ingram said.
“A jury trial is a very important right of a defendant and is not something that should be easily given up,” he said.

Still, there are a couple instances in which experts say they’d request a judge over a jury.
If the defense is so technical an attorney is afraid a jury may not understand it — such as Fry’s intoxication defense — a bench trial may be a better option.

Attorneys may also request a bench trial if the facts of the case may upset or anger average jurors so much it could create bias.

And though one of Matthews’ defense attorneys, Davis Foster, could not say why they opted for a bench trial, Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said the Matthews’ case was “more brutal than the media or public were aware of.”

An attorney could also be afraid extensive media coverage of the incident could bias the jury, too, prompting her or him to request a non-jury trial.

Overall, bench trials are uncommon, Foster said, and while he has argued solely to a judge before, they constitute a very small percentage of total trials.

But “trials in general are uncommon,” said UI law Professor Margaret Raymond, noting approximately 95 percent of all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains.

Arguing before a judge affects how lawyers present a case, experts agreed.

“A lawyer will presume emotional issues are more important to a jury but not as significant to a judge,” Foster said, so the lawyer may focus more on the technical or legal aspects of the case.

Additionally, it may affect the admissibility of certain evidence, said UI law Professor David Baldus.

This is because unlike in a jury trial, even if the judge finds a piece of evidence inadmissible, the judge has already seen that evidence, even if he or she can’t use it in making a decision.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics December 2008 report, juries heard approximately 90 percent of civil trials in the United States. Greg Hurley, a knowledge-management analyst at the National Center for State Courts, said no comparable statistics are available for criminal trials because of variations in state laws.


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