Today in 1970: The Supreme Court creates the Alford plea

November 23, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryAs anyone who has practiced criminal law may have noticed, not all defendants are easily categorized as “guilty” or “not guilty.”

Many defendants who are guilty of the crimes with which they are charged are acquitted; at the same time, many defendants who are innocent of the crimes with which they are charged are convicted.

Sometimes, those in the latter category voluntarily plead guilty, even though they maintain their innocence.

What would possess someone to head down this road?

Although the exact motivations differ with each individual, nearly all are induced into such action because there is strong evidence of guilt, the defendant is scared of a possible harsh sentence (e.g. the death penalty), or both.

This, in turn, may raise serious questions as to whether such action is a “compelled” self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.

Fortunately for us, the Supreme Court answered that question 42 years ago today, with the creation of the “Alford plea.”

The Alford plea is, as you may have surmised, a guilty plea by someone who insists on his or her own innocence, and it was so named for the case that gave birth to it: North Carolina v. Alford.

Alford started as a murder case.

The defendant, Henry Alford, was charged with first-degree murder.

Although he never stopped insisting on his innocence, the evidence against him was fairly damning:

The state had witnesses who claimed that “shortly before the killing Alford took his gun from his house, stated his intention to kill the victim, and returned home with the declaration that he had carried out the killing.”

In light of this evidence, Alford agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in order to avoid the death penalty for first-degree murder, with which he was originally charged.

Alford was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment, the maximum penalty for second-degree murder.

Afterward, Alford filed a habeas petition in federal court, arguing both that his plea was involuntary because it was induced by fear of the death penalty and that an actual admission of guilt is required by due process.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where Alford lost.

As to the first of Alford’s arguments, the Court replied that the question of whether the plea is voluntary turns on whether it “represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.”

In other words, if a plea is one of the better options available to the individual defendant, it is not involuntary.

Regarding the second argument, the Court noted that, because of “the overwhelming evidence against him, a trial was precisely what neither Alford nor his attorney desired.”

As such, since a plea bargain was more desirable to Alford, due process was not offended by his taking the guilty plea despite Alford’s continued insistence on his innocence.

Alford pleas have since become relatively commonplace since, although much more so in state courts than federal.

Nevertheless, these pleas today must have the same requisite elements as Alford’s to be constitutional – most prominently, a factual basis for the guilty plea in the face of the defendant’s maintaining his innocence.

But while the Supreme Court decided that these types of pleas were constitutional, they didn’t address the question of whether public confidence in the courts is undermined by allowing defendants who claim innocence to get convicted regardless.