Author Archive | Andy Leipold

Judge vs. Jury Acquittals; Thanks

Thanks to everyone who slogged through the last four days of posts about judicial acquittals. The comments were extremely helpful to my ongoing thinking about the topic; I appreciate that so many took time to offer their insights. Thanks also to Eugene for inviting me. Hope to do it again sometime. Best, Andy [...]

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Judge vs. Jury Acquittals, Some Conclusions

Yesterday there were more very helpful posts and emails in response to the puzzle of why federal judges are much more likely to acquit than juries, and why the gap grew between 1989 and 2002. Today I will offer some tentative conclusions on what the data reveal, and respond to a couple of comments.

I mentioned earlier that the conviction gap between judge and jury was large, growing, and could not be explained by those variables I studied. Judges are more acquittal-prone in felony cases, misdemeanors, across all categories of crime, in virtually every judicial district, and with all types of defense lawyers. This led me to consider two other possibilities – that juries are becoming increasing prone to convict regardless of the evidence, and/or that judges are seeing something in the cases that makes them increasingly likely to acquit.

[A] As to juries. Maybe the fear of crime and a law-and-order attitude are increasingly seeping into the jury box, making jurors willing to convict on lower and lower degrees of proof. Jurors know from watching Law & Order (and its 17 spin-offs, most of which are pretty good) that prosecutors are really good people who only really go after the guilty, and perhaps this mind set is making jurors more trusting of government evidence, which in turn encourages prosecutors to bring weaker cases to trial.

The problem with this theory is I couldn’t find any supporting evidence. If prosecutors really were getting the same conviction rate on weaker evidence, we would expect to see some impact on the dismissal and reversal rates, even though these are admittedly very rough proxies. But the percentage of federal defendants who had their cases dismissed at some point in the process decreased over the period studied, and the reversal rate (for reasons other [...]

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Judge vs. Jury Acquittals, More Results

Those who have been kind enough to follow the posts over the last two days have seen some terrific comments and questions about why federal judges are statistically more likely to acquit in criminal cases than juries are. Here are a few more findings, and then a couple of observations on the comments (The full study is available on SSRN at

I mentioned yesterday that the category of crime the defendant was accused of committing (drug, immigration, violent, public order, etc.) showed some variation, but at the end of the road, judges always acquit more than juries, regardless of the crime type. That statement holds true across the following variables:

[1] Judges are more likely to acquit whether the crime is a felony or a misdemeanor. This was significant, since 89% of all serious misdemeanors (i.e., those for which defendant *could* have a jury) are tried to the judge, and 74% of bench trials involved misdemeanors.

I do think the high percentage of “bench” misdemeanors explains something, even if it does not explain the change in judicial behavior over time. My guess is that misdemeanor cases get less experienced investigators and prosecutors, less grand jury investigation, and less preparation generally. These shortcomings may not be obvious to a jury, but may be quite obvious to a judge, and thus may explain part of the conviction gap. But the gap remains when we look at felonies only, so this is a partial answer at best.

[2] Judges are more likely to acquit than juries regardless of the type of defense counsel – private, panel, public defender, or pro se. I had wondered whether group norms or workload pressures might explain some of the differences, but they really don’t. Defendants represented by different counsel type do roughly the same (badly) before [...]

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Judge vs. Jury Acquittals, Day 2

Wow. Some very thoughtful and perceptive comments were posted yesterday on the basic question of why federal judges are more likely to acquit than federal juries. This is fun.

Let me pick up on a few of the points that people raised in their posts, to show what the data revealed. These figures are based on a study of about 77,000 federal criminal trials completed between 1989 and 2002. Those who read yesterday’s post will recall that I am trying to figure out both why judges are more likely to acquit than juries, and why the judicial conviction rate dropped sharply between the late 1980s and the early 2000s.

Several folks hypothesized that the type of crime involved — violent, property, drug, etc. — might explain the disparity. Perhaps certain types of crimes are both steered toward a particular factfinder and are particularly likely to end with an acquittal. For example (I speculated), financial and regulatory crimes might be directed toward judges because both sides worry that jurors will misunderstand the evidence, and perhaps it is also the complexity of these cases that make them hard for the government to win. Or perhaps defense counsel avoid juries in violent crime cases, and so on.

There may be something to this, but the figures don’t show much of an effect by case type. I looked at six crime categories: violent, property, drug, immigration, regulatory (crimes involving customs, social security, the mail, etc.) and public order offenses (a group that includes primarily traffic offenses – really – and guns). Two things became clear: (1) juries always convict more than judges, no matter what category of crime, usually by 15 to 30 percentage points, and (2) defense counsel prefer juries to judges in all types of cases. In only one category did the [...]

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Acquittal Prone Federal Judges

Many thanks to Eugene for inviting me to make some comments on some recent research.

A few years ago I noticed in the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics that federal defendants who stand trial are much more likely to be acquitted in a bench trial than by a jury. This seemed odd to me – I had always assumed the opposite was true. So I studied government records for federal trials between 1989 and 2002 and found a number of surprising things.

First, I found that the gap between bench acquittal rates and jury acquittal rates was quite large: over the 14 years I studied, the average conviction rate in jury cases was 84%, while judges convicted slightly more than 50% of the time. Second (using other data), I found that this gap was a recent phenomenon. Between the early 1960s and late 1980s, the conviction rates for judge and jury was roughly the same; the 20 years before that, judges actually convicted much more often than juries.

So the goal was to try to explain why this “acquittal gap” between bench and jury exists, and secondarily, why it had grown so large since the late 1980s. To make sure I wasn’t stumbling around in an academic fog, I started by interviewing two dozen federal prosecutors and defense counsel to see if their instincts were the same as mine. They were: of the 24 lawyers I spoke to, only a very few knew or guessed that judges are more likely to acquit. The rest were mildly to strongly certain that juries were more favorable to the accused.

During the coming week discuss some of the variables I looked at — type of case, seriousness of charge, type of defense lawyer, strength of the evidence, etc.), as well as some of [...]

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