People v. Coughlin and Criticisms of the Criminal Jury in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago

31 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2009 Last revised: 20 Sep 2010


The last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century are typically characterized as the era in which the criminal jury trial came to an end. Although criminal juries did not completely disappear, their role became smaller and smaller across that time frame. Most studies of this phenomenon attribute that decline to the rise of plea bargains in that same period. Specifically, these studies lead to the conclusion that institutional factors, such as case loads and the political pressure on elected prosecutors to be "tough on crime," made plea bargains an increasingly attractive option for the State. They are based on the assumption that the rise of plea bargains caused the decline of criminal juries. Yet this explanation does not appear to fit the case of late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century Chicago. In that period the felony courts in Chicago, like felony courts in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston, did make increasing use of plea bargains and jury trials declined, as well. But the data suggests that the greater use of pleas did not lead to the decline of criminal juries, so much as result from efforts to avoid jury trials. To explore this possibility, this article begins with a review of studies of plea bargaining in the Chicago and Cook County felony courts. The data in that scholarship suggests that the desire to avoid trials prompted the resort to plea agreements. Then, to consider why that might be so, this article explores the contemporary views of criminal juries by unpacking a trial from late nineteenth-century Chicago, People v. Coughlin, and the various objections to the jury that arose at different moments in that trial. These objections, made by new accounts, judges, lawyers, legal scholars and political figures, reveal the full range of ambivalence about criminal juries in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet as deep as that unhappiness was, Illinois law failed to respond to those concerns, in part because they were challenges to fundamental aspects of the Anglo-American common law tradition. That resistance to reform may have reflected an abiding commitment to the ideal of the jury, but it made plea agreements an attractive alternative.

Keywords: jury, plea bargain, jurors as judges of law, criminal law

Suggested Citation

Dale, Elizabeth, People v. Coughlin and Criticisms of the Criminal Jury in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago. North Illinois University Law Review, Vol. 28, No. 503, 2008, University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 2009-11, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Dale (Contact Author)

Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

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