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Alford Pleas: Prosecutors’ Choice for the Wrongfully Convicted

by David M. Reutter

When confronted with wrongful convictions, many prosecutors are forcing the exonerated on remand to make a Hobson’s choice: risk another trial or enter an Alford plea and go home. Faced with the uncertainties of a retrial and a desire to be free after years of wrongful imprisonment, many defendants enter the plea.

The Alford plea, as with most things in the law, is named after the defendant who made it infamous. Henry Alford was indicted on first-degree murder charges in 1963. His case was problematic from the start because he had a prior murder conviction, and while there were no eyewitness to the crime, there were witnesses who said he admitted to the murder.

Alford’s attorney advised him to accept a second-degree murder guilty plea to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber. Alford accepted the plea but maintained his innocence. Thus, an Alford plea is similar to a nolo contendere (no-contest) plea, but it is, in reality, a guilty plea while still maintaining one’s innocence. With a plea of nolo contendere, the defendant does not expressly admit guilt. 

The judge sentenced Alford to a 30-year prison sentence. An appeals court overturned the conviction, but in 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Supreme Court rejected Alford’s argument that his plea was involuntary because it was “the product of fear and coercion” since he wanted to avoid the death penalty. The Court concluded that Alford’s guilty plea was voluntary because both he and his attorney intelligently concluded based upon the substantial inculpatory evidence against him that accepting the plea deal was in his best interests.

Not all states permit the Alford plea, and the specific consequences vary among the states that do recognize it. But in general, an Alford plea allows law enforcement and prosecutors to close a case with a conviction, even if the real perpetrator has not been identified and caught. Unfortunately, this can mean that the true perpetrator of the crime remains free without fear of being pursued and can possibly strike again.

The effect of an Alford plea on those exonerated but facing retrial is the burden of a conviction remaining on their record and an inability to seek civil damages for the wrongful conviction because they admitted to their guilt.

One of the most infamous cases in recent times involving an Alford plea was that of the West Memphis Three. CLN’s companion publication, PLN, previously reported on their case in December 2012. The case involved three Arkansas teens who were convicted of murdering three eight-year-old boys in 1994. Two of the defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, received life sentences. The third, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death. They always maintained their innocence.

In 2007, DNA evidence established that the West Memphis Three could not be connected to the crime scene. Their convictions were reversed in 2010. The prosecution, however, continued to push the case and threatened to retry them. By that time, Echols was in bad shape, and his defense team feared that he would die in prison.

As PLN reported back in 2012, “Rather than trusting the judicial system that had kept them behind bars for over 18 years…Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley accepted Alford pleas, which acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them but allowed them to maintain their innocence. They were immediately released but have to serve ten years on probation and are still convicted felons.” Summing up his predicament, Misskelley stated, “Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest.”

In a similar story, a federal court concluded that James Dennis was convicted “for a crime in all probability he did not commit.” The prosecution, however, threatened to try him again for the 1991 murder of 17-year-old Chedell Williams. “I need to do what I need to do for my family,” said Dennis, so he entered an Alford plea.

With the rapid increase of exonerations for wrongful convictions, the Alford plea has become the preferred choice for prosecutors. It ends the matter with a conviction, and it also prevents the defendant from suing the state or from receiving statutorily-authorized payments for the wrongful conviction.

Those who have never faced the prospect of spending decades or the rest of their lives in prison may wonder how an innocent person can accept a plea that results in a conviction that will follow for life. But after years and sometimes decades in prison, the overwhelming desire is simply freedom. This is especially true when the defendant has languished in solitary confinement on death row. After having been convicted of crimes they did not commit, it is understandable that the exonerated have little faith in the justice system. So when faced with either freedom while admitting guilt or retrial and potentially going right back to prison, the choice is actually an easy one. 

“It’s not perfect,” said Echols philosophically in reference to his Alford plea. “It’s not perfect by any means, but it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects.” 




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