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A Prosecutor's Perspective on the Fraction of Criminal Cases That Go to Trial

D.A. Confidential, a refreshingly candid, well-written and insightful blog by Travis County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pryor (that should cover me if I ever get a ticket for jaywalking, the worst offense I'd ever even consider committing here in my adopted hometown), has a good post this morning attempting to explain why so few cases, particularly misdemeanor cases, get to the "The people may call their first witness" stage. Unlike on TV, where a trial is not only a foregone conclusion, but also usually happens within two Pepsi commercials of arrest.

The percentage is shockingly low, at least based on Pryor's own experience. Of the 500 to 600 cases he estimates he's resolved as a prosecutor, he can count the number of trials on one hand (assuming he has five fingers, which I have no reason to doubt). The reasons for the low number, though, are the real meat of the post, and worth thinking about. Among them, prosecutorial discretion intelligently exercised. Pryor says that he's not shy about dismissing cases where the evidence just doesn't seem convincing. The cynical might attribute this to a desire to keep that conviction rate up, but this ADA certainly doesn't have a problem discussing his record and admitting to screw-ups, including getting a case dismissed for failure to prove venue. Pryor also asserts that "guilty people generally plead guilty," often even before negotiating with the prosecution. Finally, many defendants' misdemeanor charges get rolled up into some serious felony cases they're also facing. 

Defendants that do go to trial mostly fall into two categories, Pryor says. Those who are "obstinate," some of whom he concedes may be innocent, and those who have too much at stake to not roll the dice. These are the defendants who, because of their prior criminal history, would face consequences much more serious than just the misdemeanor penalty should they be convicted or plead guilty. A sort of "three strikes" effect.

D.A. Confidential, which was welcomed to the legal blog community in grand fashion by Above the Law in December, is a consistently good read, and, as ATL noted, there are not a lot of open Internet windows into the minds of prosecutors. So please keep up the good work, counselor. It's public service on top of your public service, and we appreciate it.

UPDATE: ADA Pryor just emailed me to clarify that today's post -- as with all posts on Tuesdays -- is actually the product of an Assistant County Attorney from a different jurisdiction. So the words, the stats, etc. that I attributed to Pryor are in fact those of "The Assistant," who is truly anonymous. I sincerely apologize for my error (and still hope to avoid a jaywalking citation in Austin). My goof doesn't change my enthusiastic recommendation of the blog to all of you, Tuesdays and every other day of the week.

Posted by Eric Lipman on February 23, 2010 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)


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