Sunday, October 16, 2011

Innocent Yet Pleading Guilty: It Happens With the Court's Acquiescence

Over the past three weeks my blog, The Cautionary Instruction, at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette legal web page Ispo Facto examined the Report of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions.  The Committee Report and the Independent Report issued by the Law Enforcement and Victim Representatives of the committee addressed such things at actual innocence, eyewitness identification and false confessions.

With all the focus on wrongful convictions it may be surprising to learn that the law actually provides for a scenario where a defendant can knowingly plead guilty to a crime for which she maintains her innocence.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice an Alford plea, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S.Ct. 160 (1970), "exists when a defendant maintains his or her innocence with respect to the charge to which he or she offers to plead guilty."

Robin L. Barton in her article When a Guilty Plea Isn't an Admission of Guilt explains an Alford plea as one that permits a defendant to claim that he didn’t commit the crimes he is accused of,  but acknowledge that the prosecution likely has sufficient evidence to convict him.

In 1963, Henry Alford was indicted for first degree murder, a capital offense in North Carolina for which he could have received the death penalty if convicted. Alford claimed that he was innocent but was faced with strong evidence of guilt.

Alford’s attorney recommended that he plead guilty. The prosecution agreed to allow him to plead guilty to second degree murder. After a summary of the prosecution’s evidence, Alford took the stand and testified that he hadn’t committed the murder, but was pleading guilty because he faced the threat of the death penalty if he didn’t.

The court accepted his guilty plea.  Alford appealed, arguing that his plea was invalid because it was the product of fear and coercion due to the threat of execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld his plea as knowing and voluntary. Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, declared, “An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.”

The Court found that because the state had a strong first degree murder case against Alford, he reasonably and rationally insisted on his plea because, in his view, he had nothing to gain by a trial and much to gain by pleading guilty.

After entering an Alford plea, a defendant has a criminal record, just as if he’d entered a “typical” guilty plea. And for sentencing purposes, an Alford plea is no different than any other guilty plea.

However, the defendant can candidly admit that he is innocent but is pleading guilty for tactical reason.  Frankly, on its face the Alford plea may be the most wrongful kind of wrongful conviction.  A defendant who asserts his innocence and voluntarily goes to jail.

Alford pleas also suggests the silent acquiescence of the Court to what has become known as the "trial penalty."  Defendants who exercise their right to trial are often penalized with longer sentences if convicted.  An Alford plea is often made by a defendant who is afraid of the sentence he might receive after being convicted at trial, so in theory he pleads to a lesser sentence while maintaining his innocence. 

Alford pleas have received the imprimatur of the High Court and wide aacceptance by trial courts nationwide nevertheless the theory behind the plea is troubling.

To read more:


Law and Justice Policy said...

Men and women plead guilty every day because they fear that a guilty verdict will result in getting hammered by the sentencing judge. The trial penalty is very real and practiced in every jurisdiction in America. Some suggest that the trial penalty is a component of plea bargaining. There would be no incentive to plea if you get the same sentence whether you plea or Ho to trial.

Anonymous said...

Can I prosecutor who dangled the Alford plea as part of a plea deal telling this person they can still say they are innocent throw it back in their face later on saying the defendant hid behind the Alford Plea? It seems wrong to me that the Idaho State Prosecutors office brought a plea deal to someone who they said could be facing 110 years if they jury found him guilty- then put a good looking plea deal and promised him things then turns around and slaps him in the face with it. Its wrong. And the innocent pay.

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