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What is a bench trial? And why did Michelle Carter ask for one?

Michelle Carter reacted after telling Judge Lawrence Moniz she will waive her right to a jury trial.Faith Ninivaggi/POOL

Michelle Carter, who is charged with persuading a friend to kill himself, has opted for a bench trial. What is that?

A bench trial is a trial before a judge, rather than a jury. (The “bench” is the seat occupied by a judge in a court.) Another name for a bench trial is a “jury-waived trial.”

In a bench trial, a judge acts as a fact-finder and makes determinations based on the law, in contrast with a jury trial, in which the jury finds the facts and the judge rules on the law.

Lawyers say there are a number of different reasons to opt for a bench trial, rather than a trial by jury.


One scenario is when a case is complicated and might be difficult for a jury to grasp. Another can be when a defendant is unlikeable.

Veteran Boston defense attorney Stephen J. Weymouth said Monday, “It’s not often you do it,” but in the Carter case, “I think it’s a good move, quite frankly.”

Noting the dark, bizarre texts that were exchanged between Carter and her friend before he killed himself, Weymouth said the messages would come into evidence and “you’re going to have to deal with them.”

The texts, with their cold-blooded tone, might sway a jury but not a judge who “may be accustomed to some of the bad stuff they hear,” Weymouth said.

“I would think that perhaps there’s a possibility that a jury is not going to look at the complex constitutional issues” of free speech involved in the case, he said.

“What is floating around out there is someone’s right to say something that’s pretty despicable . . . jurors might not see it that cut and dried, whereas a judge may be willing to do so,” he said.

Timothy M. Burke, a veteran defense attorney and former homicide prosecutor from Needham, also said the decision to seek a bench trial may have been affected by perceptions of Carter.


“In many instances, if the defendant presents himself or herself as a particularly unsympathetic person, it’s difficult for a jury to separate the emotional content from a factual analysis,” he said.

“The reality is: Judges quite literally sit in judgment of people every single day ... They’re trained in that regard to base their decisions on a factual analysis without regard to emotional considerations,” he said.