Saturday, May 11, 2013

GateHouse: The dissonant plea, guilty but innocent

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
May 10, 2013

As exonerations become more commonplace and innocence organizations, whose sole purpose is to collaterally attack wrongful convictions, proliferate there continues to be a mechanism in the law of most states that permits an individual who claims innocence to nevertheless plead guilty and go to prison.

The criminal justice system’s long standing staples — eyewitness identification, fingerprints, fiber samples, tool markings — are fallible. With wrongful convictions splashed across the front page of newspapers across the country, why — in the interest of efficiency — does the system permit potentially innocent men and women to be locked away?

The road to state-sanctioned imprisonment of potentially innocent individuals began in 1963 with Henry C. Alford. Alford was indicted for first-degree murder, a capital offense in North Carolina. Although he proclaimed his innocence, he pleaded guilty to killing a man with a shotgun. He said in court, “I’m not guilty, but I plead guilty.”

The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed his conviction in 1970 and forever more Henry C. Alford’s name was attached to the controversial practice of pleading guilty — an Alford plea — while claiming innocence.

The Supreme Court ruled in Alford’s case, “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.”

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow for Alford pleas, only New Jersey, Indiana and Michigan forbid the practice.

Alford pleas permit a defendant to concede that the prosecution can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt while maintaining innocence. The prosecution then provides the factual basis for the guilty plea by providing the court with detailed documentation that the accused is guilty. The judge must decide whether there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

An accused proclaiming innocence should have his day in court. What does the system gain by permitting an innocent person to go to prison through the means of a lenient negotiated plea as opposed to going to trial?

Whether by Alford plea or conviction at trial the accused is wrongly imprisoned. A conviction at trial of an innocent person is a mistake. An Alford plea is tacit governmental approval of locking away a potentially innocent person.

Professor Stephanos Bibas of the University of Pennsylvania Law School wrote more than 10 years ago, “Alford and nolo contender pleas, I contend, are unwise and should be abolished. These procedures may be constitutional and efficient, but they undermine key values served by admissions of guilt in open court.”

Bibas used Indiana as a compelling example of the argument against Alford pleas. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled “[T]hat judges may not accept guilty pleas accompanied by protestations of innocence. The court suggested that Alford pleas risk being unintelligent, involuntary, and inaccurate.”

Since Jan. 1, there have been a number of high profile exonerations after long prison stays. Though not Alford pleas, the exonerations point to the exhaustive efforts to free the innocent.

David Ranta was freed from prison in March after serving 23 years of a 37.5-year sentence for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi. John Edward Smith spent 19 years behind bars in California for a murder he did not commit. Randolph Arledge spent 28 years in a Texas prison for a crime tied to another suspect through DNA.

The Eighteen Century English jurist Sir William Blackstone famously wrote, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

It is unconscionable for an innocent person to go to prison even if that person knowingly agrees to imprisonment. There is no place in a system that has taken extraordinary measures to undo wrongful convictions to permit individuals to plead guilty to offenses for which they claim innocence.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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