In some ways, trial by jury may be the most fundamental feature of the American criminal justice system. But even in the U.S., the right to a jury is limited. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the jury-trial right applies only when “serious” offenses are at issue. (For more, including the role of state law in affording juries to defendants, see The Right to Trial by Jury.)
Other countries further restrict the availability of jury trials, and others still have eliminated it. In 2014, a South African judge declared disabled Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide. Pistorius didn’t have a jury trial because, well, there are no juries in the South African system. (See Oscar Pistorius Verdict: How Strange.) And back in 2009, The Economist featured a story explaining that some countries were expanding trial by jury while others were contracting it.
Despite the flaws in the justice system, many criminal defense lawyers in the States would say that U.S. defendants should consider themselves lucky—at least when it comes to the jury-trial issue. A popular perception is that defendants tend to fare better when groups of laypeople rather than single, potentially skeptical judges make the guilt/innocence determination. That isn’t to say, however, that choosing a judge (or "bench") trial is always the wrong move. Above all else, though, it’s a decision that should be made in consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney. (For more, see What is the bench trial process?)