The recent flurry of news stories involving inmates claiming innocence but accepting guilty pleas in exchange for release from prison warrants some discussion. The particular plea bargain is known as an "Alford plea" and originated in the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina v. Alford in 1970. The Supreme Court upheld the plea agreement entered by the trial court, despite defendant's protests of innocence, and determined that since defendant was adequately advised of the plea arrangement by his lawyer and entered the plea voluntary, the plea bargain would stand. The underlying facts of the case are relevant to this discussion.
Henry Alford had been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in 1963. Evidence in the case included testimony from witnesses that Alford had said after the death of the victim that he had killed the individual. Court testimony showed Alford and the victim argued at the victim's house. Alford left the house, and afterwards the victim received a fatal gunshot wound when he opened the door responding to a knock.
Alford was faced with the possibility of capital punishment if convicted by a jury trial. The death penalty was required pursuant to North Carolinalaw at the time if two conditions in the case were satisfied. The defendant had to have pleaded not guilty, and the jury had to decide not to recommend a life sentence (this is not the law today). Had Alford pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, he would have avoided the death penalty and been sentenced to life in prison. The defendant did not want to admit guilt. Alford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and said he was doing so to avoid a death sentence if he had been convicted of first-degree murder after attempting to contest that charge. Alford was sentenced to 30 years in prison, after the trial judge in the case accepted the plea bargain and ruled that the defendant had been adequately apprised by his lawyer.
Alford filed an appeal requesting a new trial arguing he was forced into a guilty plea because he was afraid of receiving a death sentence. The Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that the defendant had voluntarily entered the guilty plea, with knowledge of what that meant. Following this ruling, Alford petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, which upheld the initial ruling, and subsequently to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit which ruled that Alford's plea was not voluntary, because it was made under fear of the death penalty. "I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn't, they would gas me for it," wrote Alford in one of his appeals.
The defendant appealed to the US Supreme Court with Justice Byron White writing for the majority. In a 6 to 3 decision, the Court held that for the plea agreement to be accepted, the defendant must have been advised by a competent lawyer who was able to inform the individual that his best decision in the case would be to enter a guilty plea. The Court ruled that the defendant can enter such a plea "when he concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt." The Court only allowed the guilty plea with a simultaneous protestation of innocence as there was enough evidence to show that the prosecution had a strong case for a conviction, and the defendant was entering such a plea to avoid this possible sentencing. The Court went on to note that even if the defendant could have shown that he would not have entered a guilty plea "but for" the rationale of receiving a lesser sentence, the plea itself would not have been ruled invalid. As a factual basis existed that could have supported Alford's conviction, the Supreme Court held that his guilty plea was sustainable while the defendant himself still maintained that he was not guilty.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan harshly disagreed with the majority and concluded that such pleas are contrary to the principles of the 14th Amendment and Bill of Rights. He reasoned that
...prohibitions against involuntary or unintelligent pleas should not be relaxed, but neither should an exercise in arid logic render those constitutional guarantees counterproductive and put in jeopardy the very human values they were meant to preserve." Brennan, troubled by the majority's opinion, believed that "the record (in Alford) demonstrates that the actual effect of the unconstitutional threat was to induce a guilty plea from a defendant who was unwilling to admit his guilt."
It is hard not to agree with Justice Brennan when analyzing the current state of Alford pleas in this country. For example, consider the case of Damien Echols in West Memphis, Arkansas. Echols was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for killing three boys in what prosecutors characterized as "satanic rituals." His two co-defendants (known collectively as the West Memphis Three) received life imprisonment for the murders. New DNA evidence released in the case indicated that most of the genetic material recovered from the scene was attributable to the victims of the offenses and not the defendants. Following a successful decision in 2010 by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding this newly produced DNA evidence, the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced the three to time served. They were released with ten-year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison. Does the acceptance of the "Alford" plea where defendants have consistently advanced their claim of innocence, while dangling their freedom in front of them, seem unconstitutional and a 'threat to the very human values they were meant to preserve."
This type of guilty plea is used frequently in local and state courts in the United States although it consists of a small percentage of all plea bargains in the U.S. In 2000, the Department of Justice stated that in an Alford plea "the defendant agrees to plead guilty because he or she realizes that there is little chance to win acquittal because of the strong evidence of guilt." But what about the innocent defendant trapped by a system that presumes guilt and refuses to recognize a miscarriage of justice. Does our justice system need to accept the harsh reality that wrongful convictions happen all too frequently and that exchanges of Alford pleas for prison release do nothing to serve the ends of justice but rather re-affirm the distrust many in the country have about the fairness of the criminal justice system?
It seems clear that the innocence movement has given new strength to Justice Brennan's argument that we undermine our judicial system by allowing "unconstitutional threats" to induce guilty pleas from defendants unwilling (or unable based on principle) to admit guilt. In the wake of hundreds of DNA exoneration and thousands of non-DNA exonerations, it is time for the criminal justice system to rethink the 'process due' defendants in litigating their innocence claims. The recent flurry of "free for pleading guilty" cases in a wrongful conviction context calls into question the very basic foundation upon which our justice system was founded. As Justice Brennan argued so effectively, the 'legal fiction' of exchanging guilty pleas for freedom while defendants continue to zealously pursue their claims of innocence, undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system and destabilizes the very protections the U.S. Constitution affords and promotes.