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A handful of murder trials get extensive media coverage each year for a variety of reasons. In November 2021 the two hot trials are the State of Wisconsin vs Kyle Rittenhouse and State of Georgia vs Travis and Greg McMichael and William Bryan

I'm just curious how many murder cases go to trial in a given year, but I'm not having much luck. The best I could come up with was an estimate based on reported arrests and the likely percentage of a murder arrest going to trial.

In 2019 the FBI reported 7,964 arrests for murder or nonnegligent manslaughter however I don't know if this includes state cases. As far as the percentage that go to trial, I can only find anecdotal evidence that it's less than ten percent. For the sake of argument I'm just going to assume that five percent are decided by a jury and there were 8,000 murder charges filed in 2019, giving a total of 400 murder trials for the year.

8,000 x 5% = 400

400 seems high to me. It could be close, but I think it's backwards way of getting the answer when you consider the thorough records that must be kept for each courthouse. Unfortunately it doesn't appear that this information is readily shared and compiled with other jurisdictions, so if anyone can shed any light, that'd be great. Thanks!

I just think it would be interesting to know. It's easy to see why the trials I mentioned get so much attention due to political and social intrigue, but I can't help but wonder what else is going on. Not necessarily murder, but I'm interested in the things that aren't high profile too.

UPDATE: I found some data that doesn't quite answer my question but definitely sheds some light on the subject. It is a data table from the US Courts website. It provides the exact type of data that I am interested in, but it doesn't provide data for murder specifically. It is very interesting though.

A couple highlights link to google sheets:

Percentage of defendants who pled guilty:

  • 2020: 90%
  • 1990: 71%

Percentage of all defendants who went to trial:

  • 2020 2%
  • 1990 14%

Acquittal Rate for defendants on trial in 2020

  • Bench Trial: 36% (75/207)
  • Jury Trial: 10% (124/1218)
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  • I don't have any better data, but some of those arrests are likely for the same murder. I mean just look at the Georgia case you cited, 3 arrests, one trial.
    – Ryan_L
    Nov 13 '21 at 23:22
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    Good point. I was also thinking that arrests don't always lead to indictments as far as I know. And who knows how they tabulate this stuff. If they arrest someone, drop those charges and arrest someone else afterwards, do they count both arrests. This is why I don't really expect my estimation of 400 to be very accurate.
    – YoeyYutch
    Nov 14 '21 at 3:42
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16 trials

For the 12-Month Period Ending September 30, 2019 there were 16 trials for homicide in US District Courts.

I found the data in Table D-4. U.S. District Courts—Criminal Defendants Disposed of, by Type of Disposition and Offense

This page has a list of past publications. This is the most recent data from the 12-Month Period Ending September 30, 2019.

Over that period, of the 137 defendants charged with homicide:

  • 107 pled guilty
  • 16 went to trial
  • In 1 bench trial the defendant was acquitted. (100% success rate)
  • In 15 jury trials the defendant was acquitted 3 times (20% success rate)
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    US District Courts are federal courts, which handle a tiny proportion of homicide cases. For instance, neither the Arbery trial nor the Rittenhouse trial are in federal court.
    – cpast
    Nov 19 '21 at 12:34
  • This is interesting, but it doesn't really answer the question, which include State cases, where as @cpast points out, almost all US murder cases are tried. Federal courts handle murders on federal property, on US-flagged ships and aircraft, and i think on Indian reservations. I am not sure about murders in the District of Columbia. In some cases they might handle murders of or by US citizens outsider of the US that are not handled by the country where the murder took place. But they would not handle any other murder cases. Nov 19 '21 at 15:34
  • Yeah I know there are more state cases. As I alluded to in my question details, state court statistics don't seem to be consolidated into a readily available database. I was just happy to find some quantifiable statistics for any court system. It's too big of a question to answer. Maybe if enough people chip in we could gather all that state data. Everyone pick a state and we'll keep crossing them off the list. I'm 0 for 1 so far. I'll start at the top of the alphabet. Alabama.
    – YoeyYutch
    Nov 20 '21 at 7:06
  • @DavidSiegel What makes you think that "almost all US murder cases are tried"? That certainly isn't true for federal cases. If you look at those D-4 tables you'll notice that most defendants plead guilty. I'd be very surprised if state cases were the exact opposite. If you do have some data to back up your claim, could you please provide it? Thanks.
    – YoeyYutch
    Nov 20 '21 at 7:24
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    @YoeyYutch That wasn't what I intended to say, I meant only that most murder cases are handled at the state level, whether by plea, trial, or some other method. While I don't have clear stats on hand for pleas vs trials for any jurisdiction, I believe that pleas significantly outnumber trails and have for many years. I wrote carelessly before, using "tried" to mean "disposed of". I apologize for the confusion. Nov 20 '21 at 14:08

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