Bench trials an option to address case backlog in Bexar County courts

Bench trials used frequently as pandemic continues, primarily used for misdemeanor cases

SAN ANTONIO – As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches one year, the resulting backlog of cases in the Bexar County Criminal Justice System continues to grow since an emergency order from the Texas Supreme Court prohibits in-person jury trials.

One option available to both the state and the defense to resolve cases is a bench trial in which a judge serves as both the judge and jury.

“It’s a daunting proposition,” Local Administrative Judge Ron Rangel said Monday.

But, he said, it is an efficient way to resolve cases.

“Especially with lower-level cases,” Rangel said. “I think most judges would prefer to have bench trials during this pandemic.”

J. Charles Bunk, a seasoned criminal defense attorney who has also served as a prosecutor for over a dozen years, has been involved in bench trials on both the defense and prosecution. He said there are pros and cons on both sides.

Noting that though all judges have taken an oath to be fair, he said, “Most judges are state-oriented, though they’re not always going to rule for the state.”

In criminal felony cases, a bench trial can benefit the defense if the facts are gruesome and unsettling, Bunk said.

“You have a judge who has probably heard facts like this, or seen a gruesome scene, and is not overwhelmed by the facts and can focus on the law,” Bunk said.

An agreement from the state and the defense is necessary for a bench trial to be conducted.

RELATED: In-person jury trials in Bexar County delayed until at least April 1

About the Authors:

Paul Venema is a courthouse reporter for KSAT with more than 25 years experience in the role.