The Alford Plea: Guilty But Innocent

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In August of this year, three men convicted of brutally murdering and mutilating three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 were released. When the “West Memphis 3” were not linked to newly surfaced DNA evidence, the Supreme Court of Arkansas allowed a hearing to determine if a new trial should be held. Rather than re-trying the case, the prosecution struck a deal with Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin where the three plead guilty, via an “Alford Plea,” to various counts of first and second-degree murder. The plea allowed the prosecutors to uphold their “guilty” conviction, and the accused to maintain their innocence (minus the 18 years they served in prison). What is the Alford Plea and is its place in our justice system an appropriate mechanism for cases such as the West Memphis 3?

What is the Alford Plea?

An Alford Plea is a guilty plea of a defendant who proclaims he is innocent of the crime, and admits that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is entered when an accused, together with his attorney, has made the calculated decision to plead guilty because the evidence against him is so strong that it will likely lead to conviction. Typically, it results in a guilty plea of a lesser crime (i.e. second degree murder rather than first). Some states see the Alford Plea invoked frequently, such as Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio—however, the United States Military, along with Indiana and New Jersey forbid its use entirely.

Origin of the Plea

The Alford Plea originated from a first-degree murder case in North Carolina in 1963, which was appealed to the Supreme Court. (North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970)). Evidence included testimony that Henry Alford took his gun, proclaimed that he was going to kill the victim and went to the victim’s home, where they argued. Mr. Alford left the home, and soon thereafter, the victim was shot when answering a knock at the door.

If convicted of the crime, Alford would have suffered North Carolina’s then default sentence of capital punishment. Despite the evidence against him, Mr. Alford insisted he was innocent and plead guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison and appealed his case to federal court where he argued that he was coerced into the guilty plea to avoid death and requested a new trial. The 4th Circuit Court ruled that the plea was involuntary because it was motivated by fear of death, therefore, the trial court should have rejected his plea.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States held that there were no constitutional barriers to accepting a guilty plea despite protests of innocence so long as the defendant is competently represented by counsel, the plea is intelligently chosen and the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt. Today, when Alford Pleas are accepted, trial judges have discretion as to whether to accept the plea.

Consequences of the Plea to the Defendant

For purposes of sentencing, the Alford Plea is a guilty plea. For future crimes, the guilty plea may or may not be used against the defendant, depending on the court that presides over the future crime. When applying for a job, the defendant is obligated to disclose that he/she has “plead guilty” to a crime.

Effects of the Plea

For the West Memphis 3, the Alford Plea allowed them to be set free without enduring a re-trial which could have resulted in their conviction. For the prosecutors, they would have faced the customary difficulty that time imposes on any trial—evidence decays or disappears over time. For the families, one parent of one victim, John Mark Byers, doubted the guilt of the three men and declared it a “blessing of God” that they were set free. Another parent, however, was ejected from the court for shouts of disagreement. Although one can argue that the allowance of an Alford Plea is bittersweet for victims’ families who lack adequate closure, it is a doctrine that seeks to balance competing interests when closure is clearly out of reach.

The Alford Plea is often controversial because it is neither a full admission of innocence nor guilt. It can serve to present one last-ditch option to avoid trial or a damning sentence for those who are indeed guilty, but can also be the one way out for those who maintain their innocence but have overwhelming evidence against them. In the case of the West Memphis 3, will we ever know for sure?