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Their Day in Court: Assessing Guilty Plea Rates Among Terrorists

NCJ Number
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice Volume: 22 Issue: 3 Dated: August 2006 Pages: 261-276
Date Published
August 2006
16 pages

Using Federal Sentencing Commission data, this study compared plea negotiations for 94 terrorists and 490 nonterrorists indicted in the same year and for the same offense code, in order to test the hypothesis that terrorists are less likely to be convicted as a result of a guilty plea than similarly situated nonterrorists.


The Federal sentencing data provide two categories of conviction type: "convicted at trial" and "convicted by guilty plea." The study found that nearly 30 percent of the terrorists and 14 percent of the nonterrorists were convicted in Federal trials, which suggests that terrorists are nearly twice as likely as nonterrorists with similarly severe charges to be convicted without a guilty plea. This confirms the hypothesis. In explaining this variance in plea bargaining between terrorists and nonterrorists, the authors argue that plea bargaining decreases as political focus and government resources are shifted to combat terrorism. They reason that the decision about whether to plead guilty or go to trial and whether one is convicted at trial is the result of a complicated series of interactions that reflect the ideology of the defendant, the defendant's desire to be portrayed in public, and the manner in which the prosecution desires to portray the defendant before a prospective jury. These factors combine in terrorism cases to increase the likelihood that they will go to trial rather than be convicted on guilty pleas. The dependent variable measured in this study was conviction by means of a trial. Independent variables measured were type of defendant (terrorist or nonterrorist), age, minority status, gender, education, number of counts in the indictment, and criminal history. 5 tables, 12 notes, 39 references, and appended coding of count severity variable

Date Published: August 1, 2006