South-Central Kentucky Judge Says High Number of Plea Bargains Means Low Number of Jury Trials

Jun 5, 2012

Jury duty: some people like it, a lot of people hate it. Regardless of their thoughts on the issue, many of those who are called for jury duty won’t ever take part in a trial. That’s at least partly because—for better or worse—so many cases result in plea bargains that are arranged by the prosecutors and defense attorneys ahead of time.

Phil Patton is Circuit Judge for Barren and Metcalfe counties. Each Monday, Judge Patton hosts the Barren County Commonwealth’s Attorney and defense lawyers in his chambers. More often than not, the prosecution makes an offer to the defense, the defense makes a counter-offer, and the two sides eventually come to an agreement that they present to the judge.

Last year in Barren County Circuit Court, there were only five criminal cases that went to trial.

 “Now, that sounds like a very low number, and it is the lowest number we’ve had going back five years,” said Judge Patton. “But the amazing thing is, I go to judicial colleges, or when I was Commonwealth’s Attorney for eight years I would go to prosecutor conferences and find out there are circuits where they virtually never have trials. There are judges who have never had a jury trial. There are Commonwealth’s Attorneys who have never had a jury trial.”

There are several reasons why so few cases end up going in front of juries. Often, a defendant sees the evidence the state has against him or her, and rather than risking a lengthier sentence at the hands of a jury, said defendant takes the plea bargain.

Also, if every defendant accused of a crime decided to go to trial, courts couldn’t handle the caseload.

 “There are not enough days that you could have trials without the jurors doing nothing during that period other than come into court every day,” said Judge Patton.

In other words, says the judge, if you think people are grumpy about having to serve jury duty now, imagine their reaction if they had to report every weekday during the time period they serve.

In Barren County Circuit Court, the jury pool that was selected to serve the months of January, February, and March of this year didn’t have to report to court once, outside of the one-hour juror orientation.

So far, Barren County jurors serving for the months of April, May, and June have presided over one civil trial, and no criminal trials.

For his part, Judge Patton says he loves trials, and wishes there could be more of them.

 “The police and the law enforcement need to know that it’s not enough to arrest somebody. They have to have sufficient evidence to convict somebody. Having jury trials lets them see what a jury expects.”

When there is a criminal trial in Barren County Circuit Court, there’s a good chance Greg Berry will be involved. Berry leads the public defender’s office that oversees Barren, Hart, Metcalfe, and Monroe counties. He says, like Judge Patton, he believes in the American jury system. However, Berry adds it’s not necessarily his job to go to trial. His job is to get the best deal he can for his client. And if that means a plea bargain, then so be it.

“You keep your client’s best interests at the forefront of all your negotiations with the commonwealth,” said Berry. “We’re trying to get them--if we think it’s a case that should be resolved with a plea bargain--the best plea bargain we can. The advantage is you don’t face the risk of a much higher verdict that a jury might recommend.”

Berry oversees four other lawyers who represent clients in 12 courtrooms in four counties. So he cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions about how many cases go to trial based on a five-month snapshot in one county’s circuit court system. And like Berry, Judge Phil Patton says while plea bargains may not be perfect, they serve several worthy functions.

 “The victim has some resolution, and they know the case is resolving. If there’s restitution, they know it’s going to be ordered. It’s a 100% predictable outcome,” said the Barren-Metcalfe County Circuit Judge.

And for potential jurors, it’s an outcome that’s good or bad depending on their viewpoint. Good, if they don’t want the hassle of having to show up at court. Bad, if they want the experience of actually serving on a jury.