The Pennsylvania Law Weekly
May 6, 2013
As exonerations become more commonplace and organizations whose sole purpose is to collaterally attack wrongful convictions proliferate, there continues to be a mechanism in the law in most states that permits an individual who claims innocence to nevertheless plead guilty and go to prison.
The criminal justice system's longstanding 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 add to the potential number of innocent men and women 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 pled guilty to killing a man with a shotgun. He said, on the record, "I'm not guilty but I plead guilty."
The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed his conviction in 1970 in a decision known as North Carolina v. Alford. The Alford plea was born and forever attached Alford's name to the controversial practice of pleading guilty while claiming innocence.
The Supreme Court found, "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 the Alford pleas; only New Jersey, Indiana and Michigan forbid the procedure.
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 or her 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 contendere 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. He said the state's Supreme Court "has held that judges may not accept guilty pleas accompanied by protestations of innocence. The court suggested that Alford pleas risk being unintelligent, involuntary and inaccurate."
Since January 1, there have been a number of high-profile exonerations after long prison stays. David Ranta was freed from prison in March after serving 23 years of a 37-and-a-half-year sentence for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi in 1990. 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.
Why would we add to that number? 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. •