People v. Coughlin and Criticisms of the Criminal Jury in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago
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The last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century are often described as the era in which the criminal jury trial came to an end. Criminal juries did not completely disappear, of course, but their role became smaller in those decades. Studies of the phenomenon typically attribute that decline to the rise of plea bargains in that same period. These studies note that institutional factors, such as caseloads and the political pressure on elected prosecutors to be "tough on crime," made plea bargains an increasingly attractive option for the State, and conclude from this that the rise of plea bargains caused the decline of criminal juries. In this article I argue that this explanation does not fit the case of late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century Chicago. In that period the felony courts in Chicago, like felony courts in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston, did make increasing use of plea bargains and jury trials declined, as well. But the data suggest that the greater use of pleas did not lead to the decline of criminal juries, so much as result from efforts to avoid jury trials. To consider why that might be so, this article explores the contemporary views of criminal juries by unpacking a trial from late nineteenth-century Chicago, People v. Coughlin.