This post will talk about what happens when an innocent person needs or wants to plead guilty. There is a mechanism for that. It is called the Alford plea. The Alford plea is controversial because it allows a defendant to plead guilty (and suffer all of the legal consequences of being convicted) while maintaining their innocence.
This sounds crazy! You probably have so many questions. Why would someone plead guilty to something they didn't do?Do they still go to prison? Does the judge have to agree?
Where Did the Alford Plea Come From?
In 1970 the United States Supreme Court ruled that there were no constitutional reasons why a judge could not accept a guilty plea from a defendant, despite that defendant protesting their innocence.
Henry Alford was indicted for first-degree murder in North Carolina in 1963. Prosecutors offered a plea to the lesser charge of second-degree murder so that Mr. Alford could avoid the death penalty.
Mr. Alford took the deal, but during sentencing made sure that the court understood that he was, in fact, innocent and that he was pleading guilty only to avoid the potential of the death penalty which would certainly follow if he was convicted at trial.
Following the plea, appeals followed. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court of the United States.
What Did the Supreme Court Say?
Justice Byron White wrote the Court's opinion. He wrote that courts could accept guilty pleas when a defendant is represented by counsel, makes an intelligent decision to enter the plea, and the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.
Justice William Brennan dissented. He said that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Writing that the fear of the death penalty places a defendant under enough duress to render the plea involuntary.
Why Would an Innocent Person Plead Guilty?
First things first. John Grisham, a renowned author, and champion of the wrongfully convicted wrote in a 2018 article that it is estimated that the rate of wrongful convictions in the US is between 2 and 10 percent. That could mean that almost a quarter of a million people in the US are wrongfully incarcerated.
Who knows how many of those are there by virtue of their own guilty plea. Why would they do that?
- There may be a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence that, despite the defendant's innocence, points towards them.
- The deal may be too good to be true. I've seen folks who, if convicted at trial, would face a minimum of 25 years in prison with no chance of parole. Facing these grave consequences, the prosecutors offered the client one year in prison. This person pleaded guilty under Alford. Maintaining his innocence, but saying it was in his best interest to plead guilty.
- There may be witnesses/co-D's pointing the finger. The defendant may have inadvertently become a "fall man." Sometimes witnesses and co-defendant's tell lies.
- The trial tax is too high. A defendant may be able to secure a probation only sentence if they plea despite facing decades in prison if they go to trial.
Will and Alford Plea Keep Me out of Prison?
No. An Alford plea does not affect the consequences of a guilty plea in any way (it can, however, avoid trial tax). The accused will still be convicted. The accused will still face the sentence, prison or not. It will still be a conviction on the defendant's criminal history.
Does the Judge Have to Agree to Take the Alford Plea?
Yes. Some judges are more willing to take Alford pleas then other judges. Many of them are hesitant to take a guilty plea from someone who is maintaining their innocence. I agree with their sentiment on this. I don't like a client of mine pleading to someone to which they maintain their innocence.
If you have questions about an Alford plea, then contact us. We would be happy to talk to you about your options going forward.