Straight-backed and steely-eyed, Amanda Bennis gazed at the jury. “You’ve heard what the prosecutor has to say. Mr. Jones would have you believe that my client, poor sweet Jack Durham, is a monster. But you know in your heart that’s not true. Not a single shred of the prosecution’s evidence stands up to even the simplest scrutiny. Mr. Durham has never harmed anyone in his life. Please do the right thing. Uphold justice—let my client go!”
Although Amanda’s voice rang strongly throughout the packed courtroom, everyone could tell that the jury wasn’t swayed. Twelve pairs of eyes glared in Jack’s direction, twelve mouths turned down in scowls. Jack blinked, trying to keep the tears at bay. He was an innocent man, but nobody except Amanda cared. He was going to rot in prison.
But then, just as all hope was lost, a man stood up from his seat near the back of the courtroom. “Jack didn’t do it!” he yelled. “It was I!”
As the room erupted into chaos, Jack began to sob. Thank God. His evil twin had finally seen the light.
Dramatic courtroom scenes: the bread-and-butter of countless movies, TV shows, and books. Fun to watch, fun to write. In real life, though, few cases ever make it to court.
Criminologists like to talk about the funnel model of criminal justice. Out of every 1000 serious crimes that happen in the US, only about half are reported to police. Eighty percent of the reported crimes go unsolved, meaning we’re left with only 100 arrests. Sixty percent of those defendants will be referred to juvenile court or have their cases dropped early by the prosecutor. Ten of the remaining forty will jump bail or flee, never to face trial. So we’re left with only 30 cases going to trial.
But wait! There’s more! Of those 30 cases, 27 will result in plea bargains, almost always well before anyone steps into the courtroom. If you’ve done the math, you’ll realize that out of 1000 cases, only three will end up before a jury. (Of those three cases, two will result in convictions and one in an acquittal.)
It may be a little discouraging to look at these statistics, and the practice of plea bargaining is controversial. But imagine how backlogged our courts would be if the vast majority of criminal cases didn’t shake out before going to court.
It’s fine if you want to include courtroom scenes in your book. Just keep in mind how rare they are. You might want to acknowledge, at least in passing, that plea bargains are the norm. Give your defendant a good reason for refusing the plea deal—but give your prosecutor a strong enough case that it’s credible she’d bother to take it to trial.