Many thanks to Eugene for inviting me to make some comments on some recent research.
A few years ago I noticed in the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics that federal defendants who stand trial are much more likely to be acquitted in a bench trial than by a jury. This seemed odd to me – I had always assumed the opposite was true. So I studied government records for federal trials between 1989 and 2002 and found a number of surprising things.
First, I found that the gap between bench acquittal rates and jury acquittal rates was quite large: over the 14 years I studied, the average conviction rate in jury cases was 84%, while judges convicted slightly more than 50% of the time. Second (using other data), I found that this gap was a recent phenomenon. Between the early 1960s and late 1980s, the conviction rates for judge and jury was roughly the same; the 20 years before that, judges actually convicted much more often than juries.
So the goal was to try to explain why this “acquittal gap” between bench and jury exists, and secondarily, why it had grown so large since the late 1980s. To make sure I wasn’t stumbling around in an academic fog, I started by interviewing two dozen federal prosecutors and defense counsel to see if their instincts were the same as mine. They were: of the 24 lawyers I spoke to, only a very few knew or guessed that judges are more likely to acquit. The rest were mildly to strongly certain that juries were more favorable to the accused.
During the coming week discuss some of the variables I looked at -- type of case, seriousness of charge, type of defense lawyer, strength of the evidence, etc.), as well as some of the conclusions I drew. Questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org. The full paper can be found at 83 Wash.U.L.Q. 151, from SSRN at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=843606.
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