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What Is an Alford Plea?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

What is an Alford plea? It's named after a famous U.S. Supreme Court case, but what exactly does it mean?

A recent case shows how Alford pleas are used in practice. A South Carolina couple was sentenced to 20 years in prison this week for extreme child abuse. The sentence was handed down after the pair entered Alford pleas -- often dubbed the "guilty yet innocent" plea.

Here's how an Alford plea works:

Guilty Plea With No Admission of Guilt

Like a nolo contendere plea, an Alford plea allows a criminal defendant to enter a guilty plea without admitting guilt. Essentially, the defendant does not admit the act, but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charge at trial.

With an Alford plea, the defendant -- typically only with the court's permission -- accepts all the ramifications of a guilty verdict (i.e., punishment) without first attesting to having committed the crime.

The rare plea serves as a final resort to avoid trial or a severe sentence for those who are indeed guilty. It's also a last-ditch option for those who maintain their innocence but are confronted with overwhelming evidence against them.

Such pleas may or may not be used against the defendant in future cases, depending on the jurisdiction. Since it is a guilty plea, it's likely to show up on background checks.

Generally, attorneys are instructed not to consent to Alford pleas except in the most unusual circumstances and only with the recommendation of assistant attorneys general. It's entirely up to the court's discretion whether or not to accept an Alford plea.

Who Was Alford?

The term "Alford plea" is taken from North Carolina v. Alford, a first-degree murder case in North Carolina in 1963 that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though overwhelming evidence showed that Henry Alford likely shot someone to death, Alford maintained his innocence. But because he would have faced the death penalty if convicted, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder -- all the while maintaining his innocence. An appellate court ruled his guilty plea was coercive (because it was motivated by a fear of death).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision and held that there were no constitutional barriers to accepting a guilty plea despite protests of innocence as long as:

  • The defendant has competent legal representation,
  • The plea is intelligently chosen, and
  • The record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.

To learn how Alford pleas work in your jurisdiction, you may want to consult a criminal defense lawyer in your area.

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