The Alford Plea: A Guilty Plea Without the Guilt

If you have ever watched a TV show about crime, then you know that there comes a point in every criminal law case when a judge asks the defendant to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Of course, there is more to entering a plea than simply admitting guilt or maintaining innocence. Entering a plea of not guilty is a bigger risk; you have a constitutional right to a jury trial, but the stakes are high. If the jury finds you not guilty, then you have cleared your name, and you can neither be punished for the crime with which you were charged nor be re-tried for it, but if you are found guilty, the punishment is often harsher than it would be if the defendant had entered a guilty plea. Thus, the Alford plea is an option for defendants who maintain their innocence but feel that they have no choice but to plead guilty. The Alford plea was named after a man who was charged with murder and pleaded guilty in order to avoid capital punishment, even though he insisted that he had not committed the crime.


What is an Alford Plea?


In an Alford plea, the defendant accepts punishment for the crime for which he or she was charged, but does not admit that he or she actually committed the crime. It bears some similarities to a plea of no contest.


Origins of the Alford Plea


Henry Alford of North Carolina was charged with first-degree murder in 1963 for the killing of Nathaniel Young. At that time, North Carolina law stipulated that the punishment for first degree murder was capital punishment when the defendant pleaded not guilty but was then convicted during a jury trial. While Alford held that he had not killed Young, his lawyer persuaded him to enter a guilty plea, since there was a good chance that the prosecution could convince the jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, of Alford’s guilt. Alford instead pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a sentence of 30 years in prison.


Alford appealed his conviction, and the appeal resulted ultimately in a 1970 United States Supreme Court decision acknowledging the validity of pleas like Alford’s, in which the defendant acknowledges that considerable evidence of his guilt exists, but holds that he is innocent of the crime with which he has been charged and, instead, he pleads guilty to a lesser charge. Alford’s appeals process raised issues of whether Alford’s original 1963 guilty plea could be considered voluntary, since pleading innocent could mean a death sentence. Today, the Alford plea is most often used as part of a plea bargain.


Contact Madrid Law About Felony Charges

When you are faced with a criminal charge, you have the right to legal counsel. Deciding whether to accept a plea bargain or to exercise your right to a trial is a serious decision, especially when you are facing felony charges that could result in a lengthy prison sentence.  Contact Madrid Law in Houston for a consultation about your criminal defense case.

The Alford Plea: A Guilty Plea Without the Guilt
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