An Absurd Conviction Rate?

During my second visit to Russ in prison he told me what seemed like an absurd statistic: that 98% of UCMJ Courts Martial result in convictions. I had a strong suspicion that was a prison lawyer talking and perhaps not based on facts. We talked about it for a while and then moved on to other topics, but when I got home, I did some research. It turns out, Russ’s statistic was a little off…but only by about 4% in 2010.

Click on the image for full source document, see pg. 22.

According to this document published by the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Services, 610 general Courts Martial in FY 2010 resulted in 572 convictions, which works out to a 93.7% conviction rate. I printed out this page and sent it to Russ in a letter.

Of course, my next question was: So what’s the conviction rate for civilian courts? Wikipedia says the US Federal Court conviction rate was “high” at 85% in 1992 and cites an article written by James Coughlan in 2000 which provides a few state conviction rates:¬†“In recent years, the conviction rate has averaged approximately 84% in Texas, 82% in California, 72% in New York, 67% in North Carolina, and 59% in Florida.” But everyone knows Wikipedia is full of faulty information – so let’s look elsewhere.

According to a 2006 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the federal courts conviction rate was about 90% for defendants who didn’t immediately plead guilty. “Between 2000 and 2005, 99 percent of the 435,000 federal criminal defendants prosecuted nationwide were convicted. The conviction rate was the same for the 2,130 criminal defendants prosecuted during that period in the Western District of Pennsylvania.”

A Texas attorney’s 2010 blogpost states, “From March 31, 2008-March 31, 2009, prosecutors had an 85% conviction rate at jury trials in federal court.” It seems to work in the attorney’s favor that the conviction rate is so high as it probably gins up interest in the work they do, but regardless of their motives, their numbers jive with the statistic cited by Wikipedia.

85% in Texas is high, but it’s still 9% lower than the UCMJ conviction rate. I’m no lawyer, so I can’t say for certain what variables account for such a discrepancy. On my third visit to Russ, we talked again about the conviction rate and my research into comparable civilian court conviction rates. Russ made what I thought was a pretty good point – yes, civilian courts convict at a lower rate than military ones, but it should be the other way around and by a significant percentage. See, in civilian courts, typically the prosecution will not continue to press charges unless they feel they have a preponderance of evidence and a good chance of a conviction, not so in a military court.¬†Courts Martial convene whether the prosecution thinks they have enough evidence to convict or not. The unit commander is the one who decides to try a case, not a lawyer, and his motivation is usually couched in self-preservation rather than achieving a conviction. That is, a commander may a case to trial just so it doesn’t seem as though he is taking justice into his own hands, regardless of the evidence. Normally, I would say that’s a good thing – it should mean that a Soldier gets the benefit of a thorough review of the charges against him rather than being subjected to the arbitrary justice of a commander who may or may not be fair, but is definitely too busy to be bothered with the minutia of legal cases.

From Russ:

I have access to the same statistics that you printed out, just not as current. The 94% conviction rate in FY2010 is a decrease from FY2008, if I’m reading them correctly. Still, I wish I would have known the odds I was up against from the beginning. From what I can tell appeals offer a pretty slim chance of survival as well. That said, I’m keeping the faith.

I’m glad you guys live so close, it was awesome seeing you. Even if I did have to get strip searched afterwards…this place is nuts.