Are you interested in how the criminal justice system works, but don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a law degree? Same here! In CrimeFeed’s new column, Explainer, we, with the help of actual experts, will be explaining common legal terminology – but in terms the average jury member can understand. First up, THE ALFORD PLEA.
Legal Expert: Stephen L. Braga, a celebrated criminal defense attorney who was part of the legal team that negotiated the West Memphis Three’s release from prison with an Alford plea agreement
Legal Definition: “The Alford plea is like a ‘no contest’ plea designed to end a criminal case without the court or a jury ever making any finding that the defendant actually committed the crime,” said Braga. “In fact, in an Alford plea, unlike a no contest plea, the defendant actually continues to maintain his innocence.”
Come Again? An Alford plea allows a defendant is able to assert his or her innocence, while also acknowledging that the prosecution has enough evidence to convince a jury to convict. As a result, both the defendant and the State are able to avoid the costs and the risks associated with a trial or, in the case of the West Memphis Three, a retrial.
A no contest plea is also an alternative to a guilty or not guilty plea, but one where a defendant does not admit to or dispute the charges against him. Like the Alford plea, it is treated like a guilty plea and is often party of a plea bargain.
Origins: Like a lot of legal terminology, the Alford plea gets its name from the legal decision which first established its use. In 1963, Henry Alford was indicted on first-degree murder charges – though he maintained his innocence the entire time, he ended up pleading guilty to second-degree murder in order to avoid being sentenced to death by the state of North Carolina. At the time, capital punishment was the default sentence for a first-degree murder conviction in the state, if the defendant pleaded not guilty and the jury didn’t instead recommend a life sentence.
The judge accepted Alford’s plea and sentenced him to the maximum of 30 years in prison. However, Alford appealed and requested a new trial, arguing that his guilty plea was “the product of fear and coercion” in order to avoid the possibility of a death sentence, thus violating his constitutional rights. After a number of appeals, North Carolina v. Alford ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which took on the case because there were other states that would only accept a guilty plea if it also included an admission of guilt from the defendant. The Supreme Court’s majority ruling ultimately decided that a judge is allowed to accept a guilty plea from a defendant who at the same time protests his innocence, so long as he’s been advised by a competent attorney, the plea is in the defendant’s best interests, and “the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.”
Famous Examples: Aside from North Carolina v. Alford, the most famous, but also most unusual, example of the Alford plea being used is certainly in the case of the West Memphis Three. (If you’re not familiar with the case, I highly recommend watching both the Paradise Lost series, as well as West of Memphis.)
In 1994, three Arkansas teenagers/young men were convicted in the murders of three eight-year-old boys, with two of the defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, receiving life sentences and the third, Damien Echols, being sentenced to the death penalty. Their appeals were at a standstill for years until, in 2007, new forensic evidence was presented to the court, which showed that while most of the genetic material at the crime scene belonged to the three victims, there was some that could not be attributed to either the victims or the defendants. In fact, there was no genetic material linking them to the crime.
In September 2008, the original trial judge, David Burnett, denied Echols’ request for a retrial, calling the DNA results “inconclusive,” and in January 2010, he denied Baldwin and Misskelley’s requests as well. Then, in November 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered new evidentiary hearings for all three defendants to the lower court, based on the new DNA evidence, essentially rebuking Burnett’s 2008 decision against Echols. As luck would have it, Judge Burnett had just retired from the bench (he was elected to the State Senate, a position he still holds today), so a new judge, David Laser, would be overseeing the hearings. While it was likely that Laser would have granted the West Memphis Three new trials, they instead negotiated Alford pleas out of concern for Echols’ physical and mental health.
“I know of no other case where an Alford plea has occurred as long after an original conviction as in the WM3 case,” explained Braga. “It was based upon a firm agreement for all of the defendants’ immediate release from prison. Echols’ defense team proposed the Alford plea as a means of bridging the longtime and bitter gap between the State’s insistence on a guilty plea and the defendants’ insistence on their innocence. The key surrounding circumstances for the deal were the State’s concern that they might have to retry the case and might lose that retrial; and the defense’s concern that Damien Echols might die on death row.”
On August 19, 2011, Judge Laser accepted their pleas and sentenced them to time served, and they were finally released after spending 18 years and 78 days in prison.
What’s Good: Braga was generous enough to break down the circumstances in which an Alford plea is preferable to a guilty or not guilty plea for both the defendant and the State:
“The Alford plea is always preferable to a guilty plea for a defendant because the guilty plea requires the defendant to admit to having committed criminal acts, and those admissions can have problematic collateral consequences. The Alford plea is preferable to a not guilty plea for a defendant when the Alford plea will bring the case to an end, but the not guilty plea would not.The Alford plea is always preferable to a not guilty plea for the prosecution when it leads to a final resolution of the case and a not guilty plea would not do so. The Alford plea is never preferable to a guilty plea for the prosecution.”
Sometimes a defendant charged with a higher crime will use the Alford plea in combination with a plea bargain that allows them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, thereby avoiding a harsher sentence while also maintaining their innocence.
For example, in Iowa in 2005, Joseph Lawrence was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jason Gage, a 29-year-old gay man. Witnesses saw Lawrence and Gage together on the night of the murder and police said that Lawrence admitted to hitting Gage over the head with a bottle and stabbing him in the neck with a piece of glass. Gage was found dead in his bed and an autopsy revealed he had died from a severe head injury, but there were no defensive wounds to suggest he had tried to ward off an attack. In Iowa, a conviction for first-degree murder comes with a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Ultimately, Lawrence acknowledged that there was enough evidence for a jury to convict should the case go to trial, and instead entered an Alford plea to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, which came with a mandatory sentence of 50 years in prison, 70 percent of which (35 years) he must serve before he’s eligible for parole. As part of the Alford plea agreement, Lawrence did not admit guilt, and waived his right to appeal the verdict and the sentence.
What’s Not-So-Good: There is some risk that comes with entering an Alford plea, at least when it’s used to avoid going to trial.
“Sometimes the sentencing terms are agreed to as part of the plea and sometimes they are not,” Braga explained. “When they’re not, the sentencing terms are then left up to the judge. For a defendant, it is always preferable to try to get certainty on favorable sentencing terms if possible.”
And how do judges and prosecutors typically regard defendants who choose to enter an Alford plea?
“It’s a mixed bag in terms of judicial and prosecutorial reaction,” Braga said. “Sometimes the defendants get credit for helping to bring the litigation to an end; sometimes the defendants lose credit for showing no remorse. This only becomes relevant when the sentencing is left open in the plea, rather than being fixed, which largely eliminates these consequences both ways.”
Even if favorable sentencing terms are decided before the plea is entered and the defendant vehemently asserts their innocence, legally speaking, it’s still a guilty plea, and for a defendant that is actually really and truly innocent, that sucks. For starters, the crime itself will not be reinvestigated because, in the eyes of the law, the perpetrator has been convicted and punished. That means whoever really is guilty walks free.
Likewise, a defendant who enters an Alford plea must carry the burden of having been convicted of a crime and only full exoneration can relieve them of all that entails. Because the police and prosecutors consider the case closed, defendants, without the help of law enforcement, must unearth new, conclusive evidence of their own innocence or someone else’s guilt. That takes time and money that the vast majority of defendants simply do not have. The West Memphis Three continue to raise money from supporters to fund further investigation in hopes of one day being fully exonerated, but most cases do not get the publicity that they did. Groups like the Innocence Project are available, but they too only have so much money, time and resources.
Then, of course, there’s the court of public opinion, which is not known for its nuance, and despite a defendant’s protests that they are innocent, still regards an Alford plea as an admission of guilt. The seemingly contradictory nature of claiming innocence in the same breath as entering a guilty plea can be tough to swallow for a defendant. The West Memphis Three’s Jason Baldwin was initially opposed to taking an Alford plea, preferring instead to go through another trial. But the deal was all or nothing, and because Echols was on death row, and suffering terribly from those circumstances, Baldwin ultimately relented.
“If Jason had refused, I think the Alford plea deal would have fallen apart,” Braga said, “with the result that the case would still – even almost five years later now – still be in litigation in Arkansas.”
Instead, all three men have not only been able to reenter society and start their lives over, but they can now play a more active role in proving their innocence.
For more information on other cases where the Alford plea has been used, click here.