Trial vs. plea deal: majority of defendants give up their 6th Amendment right

MCCRACKEN COUNTY, KY — Every American has the right to see justice served, but it doesn’t always look like how it is in movies. Trials are rare.

The U.S. Courts government website says about 10% of cases go to trial.

For federal charges, the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys did a study and found only about 3% go to trial.

“If you really had a perfect system, you might try every case,” says Mccracken County Circuit Court Judge Tim Kaltenbach. He was in one of the few trials on Wednesday.

McCracken County Circuit Court Judge Tim Kaltenbach

“To try a jury trial takes an enormous amount of effort,” Kaltenbach says.

The 6th Amendment calls for a speedy and public trial in front of a jury, but the common practice of plea deals keeps many cases from reaching that point.

Kaltenbach  says the high use of plea agreements is necessary, because there are not enough defense attorneys and not enough resources and time to bring every case to trial.

I have been following a list of cases, and most of them have ended in plea deals. Most recently, Carrie Hageland was facing a human trafficking charge. She got a plea deal.

Remember Felicia Williams-Watson, who was accused of having sexual relationships with students? She also took a plea deal.

Former Property Value Administrator Nancy Bock was accused of stealing taxpayer dollars. Her case ended in a plea deal as well.

“Without the plea bargaining system, we couldn’t survive the justice system,” defense attorney Mark Bryant says. He was one of Bock’s lawyers.

A juror sits in the courtroom during trial.

He’s also been on the other side as a commonwealth’s attorney for 16 years. “It is good if you could try more cases, but the system just can’t stand the effect of it, because cases take so long to try,” Bryant says.

Bryant says the amount of evidence plays a role in whether you take a plea or go to trial.

Kaltenbach says it is a concern that innocent people will take plea deals because they are afraid to go to trial.

But the reality is, the majority of people would rather accept a deal than allow 12 strangers to decide their fate.

Kaltenbach says he estimates that he presides over 25 trials a year. He says that number has gone down over the years.

Like Leah Shields on Facebook to follow this story and others.