Alford Plea still guilty?

Updated: May 31

gavel on books

In a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, criminal prosecution, an Alford plea is a kind of guilty plea that does not require an admission of guilt on the part of the criminal defendant. It is named for a first-degree murder defendant who waived his right to go to trial, accepted a plea offer, but refused to admit guilt at the time of plea taking.

It was actually Alford who pursued post-conviction relief and habeas petitions to challenge the voluntariness and effectiveness of his own half-hearted criminal guilty plea. He argued that the plea—that he wanted the deal but that the thought that he would be convicted at trial and if convicted would face the death penalty—was involuntary because it wasn’t a complete admission of guilt. “Alford denied that he had committed the murder but reaffirmed his desire to plead guilty to avoid a possible death sentence and to limit the penalty to the 30-year maximum provided for second-degree murder.” North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 32, 91 S. Ct. 160, 165 (1970). The United States Supreme Court considered his statements at the time of plea taking to be “sincere assertions of his innocence.” Yet, he agreed to acquiesce to a finding of guilt only to obtain the benefit of the plea bargain and not because he believed he was actually guilty.

When a divided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the guilty plea as involuntary that the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Writing for the Court, Justice White stated that the United States Supreme Court had approved “nolo contendere,” or, “no contest,” pleas in 1926, which are similar. Justice White wrote, “Implicit in the nolo contendere cases is a recognition that the Constitution does not bar imposition of a prison sentence upon an accused who is unwilling expressly to admit his guilt but who, faced with grim alternatives, is willing to waive his trial and accept the sentence. Alford, 400 U.S. at 36, 91 S. Ct. at 167.

Justice Brennan dissented stating earlier cases in which the Supreme Court had approved guilty pleas produced by an unconstitutional threat of death at least required admissions of guilt. Now, in Alford, the acquiescence to a finding of guilt notwithstanding protest or silence of the defendant is also acceptable—an apparently troubling evolution of the line of cases.

“I believe that at the very least such a denial of guilt is also a relevant factor in determining whether the plea was voluntarily and intelligently made,” Justice Brennan wrote.

Nevertheless, Alford pleas are permissible in Iowa. Caution should be taken to note that they do not guarantee the result sought by the defendant. In fact, because Alford pleas don’t include acceptance of responsibility, the lack of remorse implicit in an Alford plea can actually be used by the prosecution and the judge to impose a stiffer sentence on a defendant than had they pled with an actual admission of guilt.

In State v. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court reiterated that in an Alford plea, “the defendant acknowledges the evidence strongly negates the defendant's claim of innocence and enters plea to avoid a harsher sentence.” State v. Knight, 701 N.W.2d 83, 85 (Iowa 2005)

In Knight, the Court considered “whether a sentencing court may properly consider a defendant's lack of remorse notwithstanding the fact the defendant has entered an Alford plea.” Id.

Recognizing that there is a “fine line” between penalizing a defendant for holding the state to its burden and, in the alternative, submitting an Alford plea, the Court held that the sentencing judge could impose a stiffer sentence for a failure to accept responsibility in an Alford plea but could not impose a stiffer sentence just because a defendant went to jury trial.

Without hard statistics to back this up, it is this author’s position that Alford pleas are not common. In those cases where they do exist, they seem to more frequently occur in sex abuse cases than they do in other crimes because of the scarlet letter that comes from an admission of guilt to a sex crime.

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