Hey Lawyers- Alford Plea?

I read in my local paper today that a guy accused of first-degree murder changed his plea from the Alford plea to not guilty. Wikipedia tells me that

In this plea, the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence, but admits that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty.

The article goes on to state that lawyers use this because

Upon receiving an Alford plea from a defendant, the court may immediately pronounce the defendant guilty and impose sentence as if the defendant had otherwise been convicted of the crime. However, in many states, such as Massachusetts, a plea which “admits sufficient facts” more typically results in the case being continued without a finding and later dismissed. It is the prospect of an ultimate dismissal of charges which engenders most pleas of this type.

Is this effective? How widely used is the Alford plea? I don’t get the idea that admitting “Hey, you guys are going to find me guilty” gets the case dismissed. It seems like playing double or nothing if you’re in a jurisdiction other than Massachusetts et al.

When and why would you enter an Alford plea?

“Well, guys, I know it looks bad… but really, it’s not what you think!”

I have only heard of it being done when a defendant, usually due to self-denial or stubbornness, refuses to admit guilt but wants to (or is convinced to) take advantage of a proffered plea bargain. It’s a way to plead guilty and get the benefit of pleading, but not have to stand up in front of everyone and admit you did it. I have never done one myself and can’t recall seeing one done. My impression is that federal judges out here are loath to take an Alford plea and only do it in limited circumstances. I guess the example that comes to mind is the defendant who has an FPD, and the FPD tells the court they can either plead the guy out with an Alford plea, or else the defendant is going to assert his right to defend himself at trial (typically, because the defendant wants to pursue a strategy that the FPD can’t or won’t agree to).

Edit: I have never heard of it being used to get a later dismissal and don’t really understand how that would work. I mean, I guess you could use it as a federal version of diversion (a “Brooklyn plan” is what they call it in federal court, for reasons I’ve never understood), meaning that a person enters a deal where they plead guilty to X, you put off the sentencing for a long period of time, and everyone agrees that if the defendant does A, B, C and D during that time the charges will be dismissed. E.g. “You plead guilty to possessing heroin for personal use. You enter a lockdown treatment facility for six months and successfully graduate, you keep a clean record, you take random drug tests and they all come out clean, you do 40 hours of community service. If all that happens, in one year we come back, you withdraw your plea, and we dismiss the case.” But I have never heard of an Alford plea being used for that.

There may also be advantages on the civil side later in life in that you could claim that you have not been convicted of, or plead guilty or no contest to, a felony or act of moral turpitude. Something you routinely see in contracts with executives, etc.

Though not being a criminal prosecutor or defense attorney, I honestly do not know whether you could claim you were not convicted if you technically maintained your innocence but were still given prison time, etc. I assume that while you are technically pleading innocence, to sentence you the court must still find you guilty of a crime, which makes it seem unlikely.

Yeah, I think it would depend on how the question was phrased. “Have you ever pled guilty or no contest to a crime?”, the truthful answer would clearly be “No.” But most people ask “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”, and the answer to that question is “Yes.” I’ve never seen anyone phrase it as “Have you ever pled.” If nothing else, that would miss all the folks who pled not guilty, went to trial, and got convicted.

Thanks, Ry.

Just to close this out:

The Alford (see, I can italicize too!) guy’s case ended yesterday. From the Loudoun Easterner, a distinctly local paper:
The guy received the “maximum sentence” of 74 years, 8 months. This being Virginia, I thought the max sentence for murder 1 was death. I know that penalty is only possible in a jury trial, but…

Hall had avoided a jury trial that might have led to a capital conviction by entering an “Alford plea”, in which he admitted there was enough evidence in the case to convict him while contending he did not commit a crime.

When Judge Horne asked Hall if had anything more to say before sentencing, Hall again contended that he had not killed Williams, though he admitted to setting in motion a series of events that resulted in her murder. He said that he was sorry for the Williams family and for his own family, and that he had cleaned up the murder scene before leaving it but that someone else had actually killed her- someone he said that he knew but would not name.

So to my untrained legal eye it looks like he entered the Alford plea to dodge execution. The second quote is just him smokescreening for some reason…maybe an appeal?

It will be very difficult to appeal from a sentence that the defendant asked to have imposed upon him. It may allow him to appeal from pretrial evidentiary rulings that his lawyer feels made the outcome of trial a foregone conclusion.

Another reason to consider an Alford plea might be to gain advantage in civil litigation. X, a very wealthy man, is accused of defrauding the class of all Y, and is charged with criminal fraud as a result. X isn’t so worried about the fraud charge, but is very worried about what might happen in a possible class action lawsuit by the attorneyes representing the class of all Y. He enters an Alford plea, which in some states might allow him to contest liability in the civil case even as he spends two years in Allenwood.

Note that any advantage from doing this would be largely theoretical.

It might just be his own stubbornness. I dealt with several defendants like that, especially in circumstances like his. You’ll get arguments like “I didn’t kill Jill, Bob killed Jill. It’s true that I offered Bob $10,000 to kill Jill, and that I wanted Jill dead and Bob didn’t even know her, and I told Bob when Jill would be in the house alone. But I wasn’t even there when she was killed.” No matter how many times you explain to someone that legally, which is all we really care about here, that means you killed Jill, people will often simply refuse to accept or admit that they killed Jill. It was Bob who killed Jill, not them. And to some folks, that’s a really important distinction, and whether there’s a civil suit looming or an appeal possible or not, they just absolutely will not say that they killed Jill, because in their minds they didn’t.

It’s sort of a fascinating psychological thing that people do, if you’re interested in that stuff. In my experience, most defendants do it to one extent or another: they rationalize things, hide from things, etc., to an extent that is really breathtaking to an outsider. As a defense attorney, I probably spent as much time dealing with my clients – trying to get them to admit to me and/or accept in their own hearts what really happened (what we called the “come to Jesus” talks) – as I did dealing with the prosecutors.

Anyway, if that’s the case with this guy, it’s sort of a classic Alford situation. The guy refuses to admit he killed Jill, but the defense attorney convinces him that look, legally they can offer enough to convict you of Jill’s murder even though in your mind and heart you didn’t kill her. And the guy says OK, that’s true, I agree with you – I didn’t kill her, but I accept that they could convict me of her murder anyway. So the defense attorney tells the prosecutor they’ll enter an Alford plea and save the government a trial if the government will agree to forgo the death penalty.

An educational thread! And “moral turpitude” is still as funny as ever…