American Buffalo: Vanishing Acquittals and the Gradual Extinction of the Federal Criminal Trial Lawyer

15 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2007 Last revised: 23 Dec 2007


This essay is an invited response to Professor Ronald Wright's impressive study of the fact that the acquittal rate in federal criminal trials is declining even faster than the rate of trials themselves, Trial Distortion and the End of Innocence in Federal Criminal Justice, 154 U. PA. L. REV. 79 (2005). The essay concurs with Professor Wright's conclusion that one significant factor driving down both federal trial and acquittal rates is the government's use of the markedly increased bargaining leverage afforded to prosecutors by the post-1987 federal sentencing system consisting of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines interacting with various statutory mandatory minimum penalties. It offers some additional evidence in the form of statistical data and personal experience supporting that conclusion.

However, the essay goes on to wonder whether Professor Wright's proposed explanations for the disproportionate decline in federal acquittal rates capture the whole story. It suggests that part of the explanation for both the continuing decline of trials and the disproportionate decline in acquittals may be the gradual extinction of true trial lawyers, particularly in U.S. Attorney's Offices. The essay concludes by expressing concern that the decline of trial lawyers may be having deleterious affects on the justice system as a whole.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, plea bargaining, pleas, acquittal, acquittal rate, trial rate, sentencing, sentencing guidelines

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Bowman III, Frank O., American Buffalo: Vanishing Acquittals and the Gradual Extinction of the Federal Criminal Trial Lawyer. University of Pennsylvania Law Review PENNumbra, Vol. 156, 2007, University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2007-19, Available at SSRN:

Frank O. Bowman III (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

Missouri Avenue & Conley Avenue
Columbia, MO MO 65211
United States
573-882-2749 (Phone)

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