The Vanishing Trial in Federal Criminal Cases: We Need the Endangered Species Act

I have tried around 100 federal criminal cases here in Atlanta over my 35 year career. A recent report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) demonstrates that trials in federal criminal cases are almost “extinct.”  The report shows that a mere 3% of Defendants take their cases to trial, mostly because of the mismatch in bargaining position between the defense and the prosecution.   Some people want to react to this by saying” Why have trials for guilty people anyway?” For those who might have such a reaction, I can only hope that it is never you or your family who finds themselves facing a federal investigation or prosecution.  Furthermore, if we think it through a little bit, we will see that letting the prosecution have excess power, resulting in virtually no trials, is almost like the situation that led to the enactment of the Endangered Species Act. 

For starters, everybody is entitled to a trial on criminal charges, it says so right in the Sixth Amendment.  However, the almost unmatched power of federal prosecutors brought about by various statutes enacted by Congress, along with the draconian Sentencing Guidelines, means that even innocent people are now pleading guilty.  The report sets out what I already know, those who plead guilty get far less punishment.  The report notes two seemingly equal Defendants, one who “flipped” and cooperated against the other who went to trial.  You guessed it, the flipper gets a couple of years, the Defendant who had the gall to assert his Constitutional right to trial got 45 years! My own recent experience is the same, my client got ten years while the far more culpable co-Defendant who pled guilty and testified got a mere 24 months!

The NACDL report concluded that guilty pleas have replaced trials because anyone who exercises his or her right to take the case to a jury is facing “exponentially higher sentences.” Defense lawyers and prosecutors now spend most of their time “negotiating”.  Judges rarely preside over trials, and therefore have no or very little experience when such a case comes before them.  However, when just about every case ends after a long negotiation instead of a public trial, we all lose.  The public no longer sees the facts of a case.  Prosecutors no longer have to prove their allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.  And, most importantly, some clearly innocent people will “take a plea” instead of taking the chance that their life will be ruined by an excessively long sentence.  Like the Endangered Species Act, we need a new law to prevent the extinction of the right to trial.