Time and again we see prosecutors charging suspects not with the crime that they, the prosecutors, can easily prove. Rather, they charge them with some inflated version of the crime in the hope of forcing a plea bargain. This is true especially if they can reach for a capital charge, because death-qualified juries convict at higher rates.

There is a huge problem with this that is widely understood, which is that it imposes an unfair cost on the accused -- who is still presumed innocent -- in seeking his or her fair trial. You should not have to run the risk of decades in prison or death just to go to trial. At trial you should face the charge that best represents the crime you're actually alleged to have committed, not the most serious variation that can be brought against you. The price for getting to be charged as you allegedly deserve shouldn't be accepting a guilty plea.

But the other problem, less often discussed, is that if you do go to trial the prosecution sometimes loses. This is because the inflated charge damages their credibility with the jury. The crime they could have easily persuaded the jury you had committed is now off the table; instead, they have to take the inflated charge and insist, with a straight face, that the facts support it. Juries often don't buy this, for the simple and excellent reason that it is not true.

Here we have a case where the government could have charged with second degree murder and walked away with an easy conviction. It obtained attempted second degree convictions for everyone else in the car. It could have obtained an actual second degree conviction for the youth actually killed.

Instead they went with the capital crime, and now they have a mistrial. Those for whom this was an open and shut case have one less reason to believe in the reliability of the courts. Those who see racism afflicting the system have one more argument in favor of their proposition that the system doesn't treat young black men fairly.

We see it over and over, but of course it will continue because it usually works. In part due to this systematic overcharging, more than 90% of criminal cases are plead.

Our system depends on it: we try far too many people for crimes to ever hope to give them all a day in court.


Anonymous said...

Second degree and manslaughter apparently were both open for jury to consider. I my view, that's what likely triggered the mistrial: the jury simply hung on which of those charges to convict Dunn. If First was off the table, it was almost a slam dunk second degree murder conviction. This was another Angela Corey failed prosecution.

Anonymous said...

I think you get a 12 person jury panel with first degree but only 6 with second

Grim said...

Second degree and manslaughter apparently were both open for jury to consider. I my view, that's what likely triggered the mistrial: the jury simply hung on which of those charges to convict Dunn.

That's very possible, in jurisdictions that permit you to charge the defendant with every crime under the sun that might possibly apply. That's a bad idea too, for just the reason you specify: juries don't always agree about how serious the crime is. Pick the one that most obviously applies, and you maximize the chance that the jury will sign off on the state's claim to act against the defendant.

Dawriter said...

You are wrong. If this was a slam dunk 2nd degree murder conviction the jury would have convicted him of such. You don't get a mistrial bc some jury members think he's guilty of 1st degree and some think he's guilty of 2nd degree. You get a mistrial when some think he's guilty and others think he is not guilty.

This case was not overcharged. Second degree murder was included as a lessor included as well as manslaughter. that means the jury could have convicted for either of those crimes if they felt 1st degree murder was not present. No, the truth is that there were people on that jury that thought he was "standing his ground" and they were voting not guilty.

Grim said...

If he was standing his ground in the technical sense, you couldn't have gotten convictions on the attempted murder charges either. It's a complete defense when it applies. Manifestly, the jury was convinced it didn't apply because they convicted him of three counts of attempted murder.

Grim said...

Perhaps I shouldn't go as far as "manifestly." There is always the possibility that the jury didn't understand the law it was asked to enforce. That's always a risk with juries.

E Hines said...

There's also the possibility that the jury understood the law just fine, but enough of them disagreed with it to hang the jury.

There's also the possibility that enough of the jury simply don't act in accordance with your logical paradigms.

There's also the possibility that the jury, contra Dawriter, thought he was guilty of some form of murder, but they couldn't agree on which charge to convict him.

There's also the possibility that the jury....

Tough to choose among the possibilities absent mind reading capabilities. Tough to speculate meaningfully, too, absent access to the evidence available to the jurors, rather than just the carefully selected subset of it in the NLMSM.

Eric Hines