The High Price of Needing to Be Right

There are lots of things about the legal system that we lawyers take for granted that make lay people shake their heads or look at you like you’ve got a bamboo plant sprouting from your forehead. One thing that really confuses them are so-called Alford pleas, in which a person pleads guilty to a crime, all the while maintaining that they’re actually innocent. How the hell does that work?

It should be simple enough. You’re charged with a crime. This presents you with two choices – plead guilty or not guilty. Presumably, if you didn’t do it, you plead not guilty and go to trial. Guilty pleas only happen when the person is actually guilty right? Putting to one side for now the fact that that’s not right, let’s tweak the scenario a little. Let’s say you didn’t do it, but you’re afraid the prosecution can win a conviction, anyway. And they’re proposing a deal that would allow you to face considerably less prison time than if you lost at trial. What would you do?

That’s the situation that faced Henry Alford in North Carolina in 1963. He was charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded not guilty. However, the evidence was strong and the prosecution offered to let Alford plead guilty to second-degree murder instead. At the plea hearing, Alford testified that he didn’t kill anyone but didn’t want to risk the death penalty if convicted on first-degree murder. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Alford went back to court later, claiming his guilty plea was coerced. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction in North Carolina v. Alford, 400 US 25 (1970). After noting that lower courts were split on whether a guilty plea could be accepted when the defendant maintains his innocence, the Court ultimately concluded that:

while most pleas of guilty consist of both a waiver of trial and an express admission of guilt, the latter element is not a constitutional requisite to the imposition of criminal penalty. 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.

Or, as the West Virginia Supreme Court laid out in its decision approving such pleas, Kennedy v. Frazier, 357 SE2d 43 (1987):

a guilty plea that represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternatives available to a defendant is not coerced within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment simply because it was entered into to avoid the possibility of a significantly higher penalty. . . . An accused may voluntarily, knowingly and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even though he is unwilling to admit participation in the crime, if he intelligently concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record supports the conclusion that a jury could convict him.

How often do Alford pleas occur? Hard to say, but there is an alarming trend of their use in one particular area, as detailed by two recent articles by ProPublica – where DNA evidence appears to exonerate a convicted defendant, but prosecutors insist on retrying the case.

One article takes a look at a particular murder case in Baltimore from 1987 (fans of David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets will recognize the detectives involved). One man turned in what looked to be the murder weapon (it was laying in a yard) in hopes of getting a reward. When the police turned on him, he fingered a second man as the killer. Neither had anything to do with the murder, yet both were convicted for it after separate trials (the story details how this happened – it will turn your stomach).

Years later, DNA tests destroyed the evidence and arguments used to convict the two men. So they were released, right? Of course not – the prosecutors couldn’t admit they’d got the wrong guys. They insisted they would proceed to retry both men, but they did offer something – enter Alford pleas and walk out of prison with a time served sentence. One man took the deal, the other didn’t but was eventually acquitted. As you might expect, their lives since they’ve been released have been quite different.

But it’s not just prosecutors who are wrapped up in insisting they’re right. The entire criminal justice system is designed not to fix mistakes. As the article puts it:

Courts only assess guilt or innocence before a conviction. After that, appellate courts focus solely on fairness. Did everyone follow the rules and live up to their duties?

This is both right and wrong. Appellate courts and courts that review convictions otherwise (as via habeas corpus proceedings) are, generally, looking at procedural issues. As for factual ones, they will defer almost entirely to the jury’s verdict or the trial court’s original decision. Getting a reviewing court to disagree with the original court on a matter of fact is a herculean task. That’s why I say the quote is both right and wrong. It’s wrong is suggesting that appellate courts and others “focus solely on fairness.” In truth, they rarely give a shit about fairness, so long as all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s crossed.

A second article catalogs numerous cases of similar case in Baltimore. But these scenarios aren’t limited to Charm City. One need only look to the final resolution of the West Memphis Three case to see it pops up all over the country (although, ironically, not in my part of the world – I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Alford plea taken in the Southern District of WV).

I think the Alford plea began as a kind of mercy. In a criminal justice system defined by plea bargains, how can you cut somebody out of their benefits just because they insist they didn’t do it? That it’s turning into a tool for blinkered prosecutors to keep their records intact (and those of the cops who did the investigation) is troubling. Does Alford need reformed or scrapped altogether? Only time will tell, I suppose.


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