The Trials of Indigent Defense: Type of Counsel and Case Outcomes in Felony Jury Trials

21 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2015

See all articles by Erin York Cornwell

Erin York Cornwell

Cornell University - Department of Sociology

Date Written: 2015


Previous research shows that clients of public defenders are not necessarily more likely to be convicted than those who hire private attorneys, but this work largely reflects cases adjudicated through plea bargains. Little attention has been devoted to how the context of a trial shapes outcomes across defendants with private and public defense counsel. In this paper, I outline how disparities in resources and differences in courtroom roles may put public defenders at a distinct disadvantage in cases adjudicated through trial, leading to higher rates of trial conviction among indigent defendants. Then, I explore this using data from an NCSC study of 314 felony jury trials in four urban jurisdictions. The data include both the jury’s verdict as well as the judge’s evaluation of the defendant’s guilt, which permit comparison of jury verdicts with probable bench verdicts. I find that judges’ evaluations of defendant guilt do not differ across type of counsel, but defendants who rely on public defenders about twice as likely to be convicted by the jury compared to those who hire private attorneys. And, among defendants who would have been convicted by the judge, those who have a private attorney are nearly 2.7 times as likely to be acquitted by the jury. These disparities are not explained by differences in case characteristics, amount of evidence presented at trial, and evaluations of attorney skill. I conclude by urging further research to examine the mechanisms through which indigent defendants may be disadvantaged in jury trials.

Keywords: jury, public defender, indigent defense, courts, trials, inequality

Suggested Citation

York Cornwell, Erin, The Trials of Indigent Defense: Type of Counsel and Case Outcomes in Felony Jury Trials (2015). Albany Law Review, Vol. 78, No. 3, 2015, Available at SSRN:

Erin York Cornwell (Contact Author)

Cornell University - Department of Sociology ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

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