Definition of Alford Plea: An Alford Plea is a guilty plea in which a defendant does not admit guilt.
In this country, of the criminal cases that go to trial, about six cases in seven result in a guilty plea. Often, neither the prosecution nor the defense has a perfect case, and neither side wants to “roll the dice” with 12 jurors who know little about the criminal justice system, except what they see on television. Most criminal cases have disputed evidence, and it is the job of the jury to determine who is mistaken or lying. Both sides want to “downsize” their risk by negotiating a guaranteed result.
Assume that the defendant claims he was nowhere near the robbery, but the prosecution has a witness who says he saw the defendant commit the robbery with a gun, and the witness picked him out of a photo array. Let’s suppose you are an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your client wants to know what’s going to happen. If you tell your client he will probably be found not guilty, he wants a guarantee. (It would be unethical to guarantee any client any result in any case.) If you tell your client he will probably be found guilty, that is not what he wants to hear, and he wants to know why he is paying you all of that money.
It is always best, behind the protection of attorney-client privilege, to be candid. You show your client both sides, explaining the arguments you will make and the arguments you expect the prosecutor to make. You tell your client, based on your experience, your best guess as to what will happen. You tell your client that you will do your very best to win at trial, if trial is his preference. You also suggest that you could try to negotiate a good deal for him. Your client’s immediate reaction is: “I did not do it, and you are trying to sell me out.” You ask your client: “If you were charged with murder, but did not commit murder, would you be willing to spend three weeks ends in jail to avoid “rolling the dice” and taking the risk of life in prison. Of course, even an innocent man would willingly spend three week ends in jail to avoid risking a life sentence.
In the robbery example, the maximum sentence is 20 years. The defendant admits that no jail time is better than risking 20 years, but says that he did not do it. You go back to the prosecutor and try to negotiate an Alford plea. An Alford plea (often erroneously called an “Alpha plea”) is based on the 1970 Supreme Court case of Alford v. North Carolina, in which the Supreme Court held that a valid guilty plea does not require admission of guilt. An Alford plea is just like any other guilty plea, except that the defendant is not required to admit guilt in open court and may even assert his innocence. If the case is strong, but the prosecutor has offered a plea, the prosecutor may not accept an Alford plea. However, in many cases, if the prosecutor can live with a plea, the prosecutor does not care whether the defendant admits guilt because the terms of the plea agreement are the same whether or not the defendant admits guilt.
Society cannot afford more judges, more prosecutors, more defense counsel, and more courthouses. Thus, the criminal justice system depends on guilty pleas, and one component of the guilty plea system is the “Alford plea.”