What is an Alford Plea?

In the world of True Crime docu-series and podcasts, there’s tons of legal speak that flies over us normies’ heads. One such term speaks, sometimes screams, louder than others: the Alford Plea. Probably made “famous” from such cases as the West Memphis Three or the Staircase Murder, the Alford Plea is saved for those special situations where the evidence is stacked against someone but they maintain their innocence.

But what exactly is the Alford Plea, what case did it result from, and how is it used in the twenty-first century?

A very brief history

In 1963, Henry Alford was tried for the first-degree murder of Nathaniel Young in a North Carolina court. Alford’s lawyer recommended that his client take the lesser charge of second-degree murder as it came with the lighter sentence of life in prison vs. the death sentence that the South vigorously employed at the time. Alford and his lawyer argued that a guilty plea violated his constitutional rights motivated by fear of losing his life through a death sentence.

What is an Alford Plea exactly?

As I understand it, an accused person may make a voluntary decision to plead guilty to a crime in which they claim innocence. Why would an innocent person do this? The law answers for us, “he intelligently concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly evidences guilt.” Library of Congress, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). Please understand, I am not a lawyer or attorney. Let’s unpack this.

A closer look.

There are three main sections concerning the Alford Plea. (Use the LoC link above to read the law in its entirety.)

An Alford Plea, though a guilty plea, will not be used as evidence against the defendant citing the Fifth Amendment. (An individual cannot be compelled by the government to provide incriminating information about oneself. Library of Congress, Fifth Amendment.)

A person who uses an Alford Plea will have to accept the penalty that the court implements. They are at the court’s mercy.

The third point of the law is the most important, it states: someone who has been accused of a crime where there may be mountains of evidence against him, making it seemingly impossible to convince a judge or jury of his innocence, may decide to plead guilty because he has no hope left (and probably no money) to fight for his innocence. If you know the story about the West Memphis Three, then you may understand how someone can reach this level of hopelessness.

As you have guessed, this legal sidestep has caused many debates between right and left sides, victims and defendants, between Supreme Court Justices and Appellate courts, and at many family dinner tables.

What do you think? Is this a step in the right direction to fixing a very broken justice system or is it merely political pandering?

More reading:

North Carolina v. Henry C. Ford

West Memphis Three