The officer defendants in the Sean Bell case were acquitted Friday, prompting Mark Fass of the New York Law Journal to write an article about the strategic wisdom of waiving the right to a jury trial in certain cases. You can't argue with success; the defense counsel in the Bell case clearly did fine work and were correct to avoid pinning their clients' hopes to jurors who may well have been swayed by their emotions to convict. New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman found the defendants not guilty on all counts.
As Fass points out, opting for a bench trial is a tried-and-true strategy for defense attorneys representing law enforcement clients in jurisdictions where citizens may have negative opinions of the police.
Fass quotes one defense attorney's explanation of the rationale:
"With a jury, there's always a chance that emotion can enter the process," said Mark Bederow of Thompson Hine, who recently represented R. Lindley Devecchio, the former FBI agent who opted for a bench trial in his successful defense of four murder charges.
"With a judge, the expectation is that [the decision] will be purely on the facts and the law, and that extra-judicial influences will not play a role. And I think you saw that specifically in the Bell case."
But defense attorneys should be careful not to presume that judges are immune from "extra-judicial influences."