If you were going to trial on federal criminal charges, would you want your case tried by a jury or by a judge, asks the Rocky Mountain News? A majority of defendants, whether by their own choice or the advice of counsel, opt for a jury trial. Yet a study by Andrew Leipold of the University of Illinois College of Law found that in 77,000 federal criminal trials completed from 1989 through 2002, judges holding bench trials convicted slightly more than half the time. The average conviction rate for juries was 84 percent.
The trend is relatively recent. From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, conviction rates were roughly the same, and before that, “judges actually convicted much more often than juries.” Leipold’s paper, Why are Federal Judges so Acquittal Prone? was published in the Washington University Law Quarterly (http://law.wustl. edu/WULR/83-1/index.html). Leipold attributes the trend to federal sentencing guidelines that took away a huge amount of sentencing discretion. That meant that judges were more often faced with cases where they knew that a conviction would result in a harsh – maybe too harsh – sentence. It wouldn’t be surprising, he adds, “that judges might require more and better proof of guilt when they cannot control the sentence. This would help explain why judges, but not juries, have changed their behavior since the late 1980s.”