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Considered, But Rejected

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III claimed in a radio interview last week that his office has a 97-98 percent success rate in felony cases it pursues. He repeated that number at the Cheektowaga Democratic Spring Brunch earlier in May.

That seemed pretty high, so we checked with a couple prominent local defense attorneys. (Joel Daniels was not one of them; it seemed exploitative to set his experience opposite Sedita’s in the wake of the Corasanti trial.) The consensus among these attorneys was that that the only way Sedita could claim so high a success rate is by including cases settled with plea bargains before they reached a jury trial. One attorney reckoned that 97 percent of felonies were settled before they reached a jury trial. If that number were accurate, then for the DA’s office to achieve a success rate between 97 and 98 percent, they’d have to win just one case at trial.

Of course, the DA’s office wins more than that, and, in another interview, the Sedita later said that seven percent of cases go to trial. Nonetheless, a look at some numbers makes it clear that when Sedita throws out a number like that, he’s offering a campaign speech rather than a useful analysis of how felonies are resolved in the county’s criminal justice system.

Here are some more specific numbers, related to felony cases in which attorneys are assigned to the accused.

In the year and a half leading up to August 2011, 109 such felony cases were tried in Supreme or County Courts. Of those cases, 45 percent resulted in the accused being convicted as charged; 53.2 percent resulted in a conviction of some sort of felony.

So nearly 47 percent of such cases resulted in either acquittal, a misdeameanor or violation, a mistrial, or a hung jury. (This despite the DA’s policy of pursuing only what it considers to be the “highest sustainable charge.”) The rate of full acquittals was 26 percent.

All these numbers come courtesy of the county’s Assigned Counsel Program. And they track somewhat with a breakdown of the overall disposition of felony cases that Sedita himself provided last week to Jim Heaney in an interview on WGRZ-TV. In that interview, Sedita said that 30 percent of felony cases are either shelved by the DA’s office or a grand jury, for lack of evidence to support a felony; 47 percent result in plea bargains before an indictment is handed down; 15 percent result in a plea bargain after indictment; five percent result in trail and conviction; and two percent go to trial but are dismissed on legal grounds.

I know; that leaves one percent hanging. But that underlines the point: Neither the numbers he gave to Heaney nor the numbers from the Assigned Counsel Program support the 97-98 percent success rate Sedita claimed at least twice in the last month, and doubtless will claim again as he campaigns, unopposed, for re-election.

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