Days into his murder trial, Jamal Bruce walked away from the defense table a free man.
While the American justice system guarantees criminal defendants the right to a trial by jury, Bruce opted to let a judge decide his fate.
“I was concerned in this case that a jury could get up in the emotion of a man being killed and may get it wrong,” defense attorney David Bahuriak said after the acquittal.
Bench trials — those decided by a judge rather than a jury — are rare in New Jersey.
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Less than 30 percent of criminal trials in Atlantic County over the two years ending May 30 were decided by a judge, court records show. A fifth of those decided by judges were not guilty by reason of insanity.
Only one was a murder trial, that of brothers Hasan and Jamal Bruce, charged in the killing of aspiring rapper Zachary Taylor on an Atlantic City street.
Superior Court Judge Albert Garofolo convicted Hasan Bruce of aggravated manslaughter, a lesser charge than murder. His attorney is appealing Hasan Bruce’s sentence.
Jamal Bruce, who was there when the fatal shooting occurred, was acquitted of all charges.
“(Garofolo) knows what he’s doing and would not get shocked by the facts of the case and go to what’s important: the legal issues,” Bahuriak said. “You really, sometimes, have to get past some gut-wrenching facts. That’s difficult with a jury. They’re not used to hearing about shootouts and street murders, let alone getting into the nuances of each individual case.”
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That was why Bahuriak and Hasan Bruce’s attorney, Robert Gamburg, decided on a bench trial.
Such trials have their advantages for the overworked court system. Take away jury selection, arguments deciding what the jury can hear and deliberations requiring 12 people to come to one decision, and the process is quicker and less expensive.
“It’s an easier trial because the rabbit ears don’t have to be really high to make sure nothing bad is going before the jury,” Garofolo said of a bench trial. “If something comes in that, in retrospect, I decide shouldn’t have come in, I don’t consider that part of the evidence. I can take care of that in my findings.”
Even clothing can be easier.
Hasan Bruce was in his orange jail garb when he was led in each day of trial before Garofolo. Juries are not allowed to see indicators that a defendant is currently in jail, so as not to prejudice them.
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“I think a judge is more capable of overlooking someone’s record and just looking at the evidence,” said Garofolo, who returned to retirement this month after helping fill in on the bench. “Judges know that defendants can be telling the truth about things.”
But the system is set up with the understanding that, in most cases, a jury is better for a defendant.
“Conventional wisdom is that you should go with a jury,” Garofolo said. “It provides a buffer between government action and individual liberties.”
Besides a guilty or not-guilty verdict, defendants who opt for a jury trial have a chance for a hung jury if a unanimous decision is not reached.
Going through a trial without a definitive result can cause the prosecution to come back with a better plea deal than previously offered to avoid another trial. After multiple hung juries, the state can be precluded from trying the case again.
“While all defense attorneys want to win those cases, there are some times when a hung jury is also a good result,” said Atlantic City-based defense attorney Joseph Levin.
In Philadelphia, where the courts are some of the busiest, there is what is known as a “jury tax,” explained J.C. Lore, director of trial advocacy at Rutgers University-Camden, who practiced there.
The term explains how those convicted in a bench trial get lighter sentences than those who are convicted by a jury.
About 80 percent of Philadelphia’s criminal trials are decided by a judge, said Levin, who began his law career as a public defender there from 1995 to 2000.
That’s the opposite of New Jersey, where less than 17 percent of the 770 completed trials in 2014 didn’t have a jury. Atlantic County was higher, with more than a quarter of the trials lacking a jury. About 10 percent were bench trials in Cumberland County.
Juries acquitted defendants in less than a third of those cases. In Atlantic County, judges convicted in just a third of those cases.
But that number can be deceiving, Garofolo warned.
From May 30, 2013, through May 30, 2015, Atlantic County had 88 completed criminal trials. Of those, 26 were bench trials, resulting in 20 acquittals. But six of those were not guilty by reason of insanity, which is often done without a jury and many times has the prosecution in agreement with the decision.
Nearly half of the remaining not-guilty decisions were disorderly persons cases that don’t go to juries. And the acquittal of Jamal Bruce.
“If there are technical issues or you’re making an argument based upon certain legal principles, it’s more likely to have a judge,” Lore said. “Juries are more likely to be swayed by passion.”
That can work to a defendant’s advantage.
Almon Taylor Jr. went on trial in 2012 for vehicular homicide in the death of 13-year-old Cody Sanchez. The teen had been riding his bike with some friends in Galloway Township when he was struck by Taylor, whose blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit.
But Levin argued that no one could have stopped in time to avoid Sanchez, who suddenly biked into the path of Taylor’s car from a bike path lined by brush.
“Every person on the jury had the experience of driving a car and either getting into an accident or nearly getting into an accident,” Levin recently said. “So the jurors understood that hitting a juvenile darting out into the street was unavoidable in that case.”