Why the cops who shot Sean Bell are allowed to have a bench trial.

Why the cops who shot Sean Bell are allowed to have a bench trial.

Why the cops who shot Sean Bell are allowed to have a bench trial.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 27 2008 6:27 PM

Trial By No Jury?

Why the cops who shot Sean Bell aren't getting judged by their peers.

Michael Oliver. Click image to expand.
Michael Oliver 

The trial of three New York City police detectives accused of recklessly shooting and killing 23-year-old Sean Bell outside a strip club in November 2006 began on Monday. Because the detectives all waived their right to a trial by jury, the case will be decided by the judge. Are criminal defendants always allowed to do that?

Almost always. The Sixth Amendment guarantees every U.S. citizen the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases, and it applies in all cases of serious charges against the defendant. (The exemption for "petty" crimes, which include certain misdemeanors, goes back to common law traditions.) The Seventh Amendment offers similar protections in civil cases. But these rights are what legal scholars call "alienable"—that is, one can voluntarily waive them—as opposed to inalienable rights, like those delineated in the Declaration of Independence.

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Defense attorneys might request what is known as a "bench trial"—where a judge tries the case instead of a jury—for two reasons. First, a judge might be preferred if the planned defense rests on a legal or financial technicality, as opposed to simple questions of who did what. For example, a judge might be more likely than a jury to grasp the complex accounting questions at the heart of a white-collar case. Second, the defense may decide that an impartial jury is impossible to find, especially in a highly publicized, emotionally charged case like the shooting of Sean Bell. (In fact, the three detectives charged made this argument once before in a failed motion for a change of venue for the trial.)

In New York, judges rarely deny a defendant's request for a bench trial if the defendant seems competent to make that decision. Judges tend to grant this request even in cases where choosing to be tried by a judge is a clear strategic error, as in the 2003 trial of a man who had admitted to killing an abortion doctor. In that instance, a jury would have been far more likely than a judge to respond to emotional and religious appeals from the defense. It's not as easy to get a bench trial in federal cases, though. According to the Rules of Criminal Procedure, a criminal defendant must secure the consent of the prosecution as well.

Defense attorneys admit that taking a case to a judge is a risk. In a jury trial, they need to convince only one of 12 people not to convict in order to get a retrial and up the odds that the prosecution will cut a deal. In a bench trial, it's all or nothing. That gamble has paid off in several high-profile cases over the past few years. Richard Hawkins, the former chief financial officer at the health care services firm McKesson, waived his right to a jury in his 2005 trial for securities fraud in California. In addition to the complicated accounting matters in the case, a string of corporate scandals, from Enron to WorldCom to Adelphia, had given much of the public a negative image of corporate executives. The judge declared Hawkins not guilty on all counts. There is a flip side, of course: Sometimes a really complicated case can so thoroughly confuse the jurors that they fail to find the defendant guilty.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ryan Blanch of the Blanch Law Firm, Lisa C. Smith of the Brooklyn Law School, and Matthew T. Tulchin of Goodwin Proctor.