About 95 percent of federal criminal defendants plead guilty. Of the remaining few who fight in court, nearly nine of 10 are convicted, according to national statistics.
"The odds are pretty stacked against defendants once an indictment is issued; that pretty much seals their fate," said Mark Allenbaugh, a Huntington Beach, Calif., lawyer and nationally recognized expert on the federal court system. "Once the indictment is issued, conviction is almost guaranteed."
Between 2000 and 2005, 99 percent of the 435,000 federal criminal defendants prosecuted nationwide were convicted.
I suppose it's possible that just about everyone ever indicted at the federal level is guilty, but I doubt it. U.S. Attorneys' offices tend to be better staffed and better funded than local prosecutors' offices, and certainly have more resources than the average defendant. Couple this with the accompanying trends of the federalization of crime, the criminalization of everthing under the sun, and mandatory minimums, and you get a rather stark explanation for America's exploding federal prison population.
The article also delves into the troubling role plea bargaining plays in all of this, including what amounts to the de facto punishment defendants often get for insisting on their right to a jury trial:
Former U.S. Attorney Frederick Thieman said defendants shouldn't face tougher sentences just because they went to trial.
"There's a ridiculous cost to exercising your constitutional right to go to trial," Thieman said. "The stakes are too high."
[U.S. Attorney Mary Beth] Buchanan said defendants always have the right to go to trial.
"If a defendant believes they did not commit the crime as charged, or if they believe the government cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, then a defendant absolutely has the right to a jury trial," Buchanan said.
Those who lose shouldn't expect leniency after the fact, Buchanan said.
"They can't have it both ways," she said.
As this heartbreaking report illustrates, it's often quite a bit more complicated than that. The linked report is admittedly a state prosecution, not a federal one. But it rather aptly illustrates the absurdies arising from from ill-considered "tough on crime" legislation, drug laws, mandatory minimums, and overzealous prosecutors.