Waiving your right to a jury in a Minnesota criminal trial
In all Minnesota criminal trials, either a judge or a jury makes certain decisions after hearing all the evidence. If you are charged with a crime, you have the right for that to be a jury, not a judge. So why, you might ask, would you ever want to waive that right?
First of all, keep in mind that a trial can have two parts: the first part is where either the judge or jury decides whether the person is guilty, and the second part is where either the judge or jury decides what the punishment should be (obviously this only happens if you are found guilty—there’s no punishment for being innocent!). It’s possible to waive your right to a jury for only one of these parts but not the other. Which brings us back to the question of why you would want to do that…
In theory, a jury is more likely than a judge to rely on emotion in coming to a decision. This can be a bad thing if there has been a lot of publicity around your case and you’re afraid that jurors will have already convicted you in their minds before the trial starts (in these situations, your lawyer can ask to have the trial held somewhere else, in another county, but sometimes the judge won’t agree to have the trial happen elsewhere). It can also be a bad thing if the crime you’re charged with is one that’s likely to provoke a lot of hostility, like a very violent crime or a sex offense. Additionally, you might rather have a judge decide your case if the case depends on some complex interpretation of the law that you are afraid a jury simply won’t understand.
Does that mean that if one of the above situations applies to your case, you should always opt for a judge rather than a jury? Not necessarily. Check your judge’s sentencing record (or ask your lawyer to do this)—it’s possible that your judge is known for handing out harsh sentences. If so, a jury may still be your best bet. And of course, check with your lawyer to see what he or she recommends. Keep in mind that waiving your right to a jury is a final decision; you can’t change your mind later if you start to think you won’t get a favorable decision from the judge.