79 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2005
Federal criminal defendants almost always prefer a jury trial to a bench trial, but it is unclear why. Statistically, federal judges are significantly more likely to acquit than a jury is - over a recent 14 year period, for example, the jury trial conviction rate was 84%, while the bench conviction rate was a mere 55%. Moreover, while the conviction rate for juries has remained nearly constant for many years, the judicial conviction rate has fallen steadily since the late 1980s. This Article presents the first systematic attempt to explain this "conviction gap." Using original compilations of government records for over 75,000 federal criminal trials, the Article explores a variety of stories that might explain why judges and juries behave so differently. It concludes that some, but not all, of the gap can be explained by the differences in case types that are directed toward judges. It also hypothesizes, however, that alterations in the federal sentencing scheme, which changed dramatically in the 80s and 90s, may well have affected the way judges evaluate the government's evidence in bench trials. The latter conclusion may have significant implications for the changes in federal sentencing that are likely to occur over the next several years.
Keywords: Juries, Judges, Acquittals, Convictions, Trials, Empirical, Sentencing, Verdicts, Bench
JEL Classification: K14, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Leipold, Andrew D., Why are Federal Judges so Acquittal Prone?. Washington University Law Quarterly, Vol. 83, p. 151, 2005; Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 05-15. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=843606