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D.C. Was Simply Not Bringing Trial Cases For Years As Conviction Rates Declined
A previous Investigative Economics story noted the discrepancy between D.C.’s conviction rate detailed in annual reports and that shown in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request received by Kathryn Krepp, a representative for D.C’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 6B10).
Annual reports showed a slight decline in felony convictions between 2010 and 2015, going from 75 percent to 60 percent overall. FOIA data showed the homicide conviction rates dropping much more than that, going from 87 percent to 27 percent. For a crime as serious as homicide, 27 percent would be a disastrously low success rate. For aggravated assault, it went from 77 percent to 30 percent.
Cases Just Not Being Brought
But it isn’t related to a lack of suspects pleading guilty. Guilty plea rates for papered cases—those where charges are brought—hasn’t changed significantly over that period—wavering between 48 and 62 percent.
Instead, it is trial conviction rates that have plummeted. In 2015, none of the crimes listed in the FOIA data had a trial conviction rate above 6 percent, mainly because the cases weren’t being brought.
In 2015, there were no homicide cases that ended with a suspect being found guilty, while in 2010, there were 34. There were no mistrials in 2015 and only 5 cases were dismissed. Instead, 55 cases simply had no disposition.
And that trend is across the board for all charge types beginning in 2013. Hundreds of cases simply had no conclusion. Either no case was brought, or if it was, it had yet to be completed.
It was as if the attorneys’ office started losing cases and decided to stop bringing cases to trial as a result.
Again, the FOIA shows a trend that doesn’t appear in annual reports. Annual report data shows about the same percent of cases going to trial in 2010 as in 2015, both for felony and all cases—9 to10 percent. But the FOIA data shows the rate of papered cases going to trial for some charges dropping substantially, such as homicide which went from 49 percent to 6 percent.
Lack of Prosecutions
Currently the attorneys’ office has received substantial criticism for their declining prosecution rates, with only 56 percent of cases being prosecuted in the fiscal year of 2023. But the FOIA data shows that the trend of declining prosecutions extends back before Graves’ tenure across multiple attorney generals.
In a recent interview, attorney general Matthew Graves stood by his office’s actions, stating that the prosecution declines were due to the low quality of cases being brought, and that prosecution rates were on the increase. Additionally, the largest reason for cases not being brought was a lack of witnesses, not prosecutorial discretion.
Other sources have pointed to the wide use of police cameras or the recent de-accreditation of the district’s sole forensic lab as a cause of declining prosecution rates, but both of those event came after the decline in prosecution rates and the declining conviction rates.
Issues with the city’s Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) date back to the 2010-2015 period. The lab was established in 2011, and the U.S. Attorneys’ Office (USAO) would issue a report on the lab’s procedures in 2015.
An extensive Washington City Paper story on the subject noted that issues with the forensic lab could potentially have undermined convictions.
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