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When Innocence is Not Enough to Go To Trial

Posted by Sean A. Black | Dec 27, 2012 | 0 Comments

I recently read a Business Insider Article about a little-known legal maneuver in the criminal law arena.  It was news to me that it was little-known, but I had to acknowledge that it may be little known to the public and it is only rarely used even by criminal defense attorneys who are aware of it.

The maneuver discussed is the tendering of a guilty plea under North Carolina v. Alford.  Normally, when a person pleads guilty to an offense, they admit the underlying criminal conduct.  An Alford plea allows the person to plead guilty while maintaining innocence of the underlying criminal conduct.  Instead, the defendant states to the court that he or she believes that the state will prevail at trial and that it is in the defendant's interest to close the case by a plea.

The most notable example of such a plea is the case discussed in the Business Insider Article, the case of the Memphis Three.  The three men were charged when they were teens with the abduction and killing of a chiild, based in part on the fact that they listened to heavy metal music.  They spent over twenty years behind bars following trial.  In mid-2011, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted them new trials.  Rather than go to trial again, the case was closed by Alford pleas under which the three men received no additional prison time.  By entering the plea, they eliminated the risks of going to trial but can maintain that they did not admit to the conduct of murder.

The plea was recognized in the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina v. Alford.  The Defendant Alford was charged with first degree murder.  In 1970, if Alford was convicted at trial of that offense, he would have received a death sentence.  Alford's attorney worked out a plea bargain under which Alford plead guilty to second degree murder, He was sentenced to thirty years in prison.  Following the sentence, Alford appealed and challenged the voluntariness of the guilty plea arguing that he had not admitted guilt.  The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the plea as being voluntary and properly informed.  Alford continued to challenge the plea by writ of habeas corpus arguing that he had only plead guilty to avoid the gas chamber.  The habeas case made its way to the United States Supreme Court.  The court upheld the plea and sentence setting out standards for determining that a plea was properly received.

To be valid, the defendant must have been advised by a competent lawyer who informed the defendant that his best defense in the case would be to enter a guilty plea.  The defendant can enter such a plea when he concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt.  There must be a strong case for conviction.

While the plea itself has been used in many cases, it does constitute a very small percentage of the total pleas entered in this country.  The plea is in many ways similar to a nolo contendere plea, where the defendant states that he will not contest the charge and wants to close the case with a sentence.

Since acceptance of responsibility is considered to be a major part of rehabilitation in most cases, courts are often reluctant to accept such a plea routinely.  Most courts will only do so where there is a strong case for innocence as well as a strong case for guilt.

Such pleas are very rare in the federal court system and are not allowed under military law.  At a base level, most courts will allow them because they serve a court interest in efficiency.  It means that a potentially complex and harshly fought trial and appeals will not have to be had and the case will instead be resolved by a plea.

Some scholars have criticized the pleas as undermining public confidence by allowing a system where innocent people are convicted and sentenced.  Philosophically, this may be true, but it is a position that it is easy to take when the person has no "skin in the game" or exposure.

One of my recent cases was a very difficult vehicular homicide case.  The fundamental issue in such a case is causation.  The state's investigators had determined that my client was at fault.  Because of a series of unfortunate events, my client had spent a great deal of time behind bars waiting for his trial before I became involved in the case.  We were able to retain an accident reconstruction expert.  He  identified a number of defects in the original investigation and state reconstruction of the events.  With that, we were prepared to go to trial.  On the eve of trial, my client was offered a sentence that would allow his release from incarceration in approximately six months.  If he went to trial, he faced at least three to fifteen years as a sentencing range.

There was  a strong case for a jury to find him not guilty, but also to find him guilty.  An Alford plea allowed him a way to close the case, see the outside of a jail cell, and maintain that he was innocent of causing the other driver's death.  The court was willing to accept the plea, and the case was concluded without the necessity of a lengthy and expensive trial.

About the Author

Sean A. Black

Sean A. Black is a 1992 graduate of the Emory University School of Law. He has been in private practice in Toccoa, Georgia since June 1, 1992.


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