What is an Alford Plea And When Is It Appropriate?
As a criminal defense attorney I have handled and dealt with a myriad of criminal charges of thousands of criminal cases with clients with varying economic and educational backgrounds. Clients who may face substantially the same charge with the same set of facts may desire to proceed in their respective cases in entirely different fashions due to their tolerance of risk. What is a client to do if he or she insists they are innocent but recognize that if the case were to proceed to trial the State’s evidence would likely lead to a conviction and the uncertainty of a sentencing hearing in front of the judge after they are convicted? One solution to this quandary is the Alford Plea.
Where Does the Term Alford Plea Come From?
The term “Alford Plea” originates from the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina v. Alford. Henry Alford had been indicted on a charge of First Degree Murder. Henry Alford was faced with the possibility of capital punishment if he were to be convicted at trial. Under Carolina Law at the time, the death sentence was automatic if the defendant pleaded not guilty, and the jury did not instead recommend a life sentence. Had Henry Alford pled guilty to first degree murder he would have faced the possibility to being sentenced to life in prison but would have avoided the death penalty.
Evidence in Henry Alford’s case included witness testimony that he admitted that he had killed the victim. Court testimony showed that Alford had been arguing with the victim at the victim’s house, Alford left the victim’s house and the victim received a fatal gunshot wound when he opened the door responding to a knock.
However, Henry Alford did not want to admit any wrongdoing. Henry Alford ended up pleading guilty pursuant to a plea deal to second degree murder and stated that he was doing so to avoid the death penalty were he to fight the first degree murder charge and lose at trial. Henry Alford’s plea was accepted by the court even though he stated he was only pleading guilty to avoid being sentenced to death. The court subsequently sentenced Henry Alford to thirty years in prison.
Henry Alford later appealed and requested that his plea be overturned and his matter be set for trial. Alford argued in his appeal that he was forced to plea guilty because he was afraid of being sentenced to death. The North Carolina Appellate upheld Alford’s plea, holding that Alford had voluntarily entered into the plea with full knowledge of what that meant. Alfords case then went to the United States Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court Held that for a plea to be accepted, the defendant must have been advised by a competent lawyer who was able to inform the defendant that his best decision in the case would be to enter a guilty plea. Further, the Court ruled that a defendant can enter such a plea when he concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt. Essentially, the court held that a plea of guilty is allowable even with a protestation of innocence if there is a showing that the prosecution had a strong case for a conviction and the defendant is entering the plea to avoid a harsher more serious consequence were they to contest the charges.
Therefore, a defendant can plead guilty to a charge and still maintain his innocence under what has since become known as an Alford plea.