Like typewriters, carbon paper, and other relics of the analog age, the Sixth Amendment right to trivial by jury has become a historical curiosity. According to a recent study published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right To Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How To Save It“, over the last fifty years, trial by jury has declined at an ever-increasing rate to the point that they now occur in less than 3% of state and federal criminal cases:
“Trial by jury has been replaced by a “system of guilty pleas, which diminishes, to the point of obscurity, the role that the Framers envisioned for jury trials as the primary protection for individual liberties and the principal mechanism for public participation in the criminal justice system.”
The reason for this fundamental change in the criminal justice system is straightforward: individuals who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial face exponentially higher sentences if they invoke the right to trial and lose. Faced with this choice, individuals almost uniformly surrender the right to trial rather than insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense lawyers spend most of their time negotiating guilty pleas rather than ensuring that police and the government respect the boundaries of the law including the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, and judges dedicate their time to administering plea allocutions rather than evaluating the constitutional and legal aspects of the government’s case and police conduct. Equally important, the public rarely exercises the oversight function envisioned by the Framers and inherent in jury service.
Perhaps the most troubling effect of this trend is evidenced by “exoneration” research. In a study of 354 individuals exonerated by DNA analysis, 11% had pled guilty to crimes they did not commit, and the National Registry of Exonerations has identified 359 exonerees who pled guilty. Simply put, the extraordinary pressure defendants face to plead guilty can even cause innocent people to plead guilty to crimes they know they did not commit.