There once was a case called North Carolina vs. Alford. People in the legal field are very familiar with this case and its consequences. A person who wanted to avoid the death penalty pled guilty to murder, but then appealed his own guilty plea. He claimed he only pled guilty to avoid the gas chamber, and wished to maintain his innocence on the record. Basically, he was saying he didn’t do it, but he knew he would get convicted. Long story short, people now have the right to make an Alford Plea – officially pleading guilty, and being sentenced, without admitting to having committed the crime.
When law students and others first hear about this concept, it is a little puzzling. Why would you plead guilty to something you didn’t do? There is only one good reason I can think of – because the evidence the government has against you is so strong that you are pretty much guaranteed to lose at trial. And you want to take advantage of some kind of offer that the government is making you in exchange for your pleading guilty. In essence, although you did not commit a crime, the weight of the evidence is against you. So to avoid even more dire consequences, you accept some kind of deal, in which you plead guilty to a crime you did not commit.
The underlying concept is even stranger and more baffling, but there is no remedy for it. You have the right to a fair and impartial public trial before a jury. You have other rights, such as the right to counsel and the right to remain silent, to hear and witnesses who testify against you, and to have witnesses brought on your behalf. But what you don’t have is the right to the correct outcome. I cannot stress this enough. You do not have the right to be exonerated and released, even if you did not commit the crime. You have the right to due process – the procedures must be followed. But you can, legally, be convicted of a crime you did not commit.
Let’s take an Alford Plea case and see how this plays out. Say you are walking to work, about a mile and a half, to the same job you have had for some years. You have your backpack with your lunch and your work clothes, and a baseball cap on to shade your eyes as you walk in the sun. You are sweating a little. You want to get to work on time, and your youngest kid kept asking you to pick her up for one more hug goodbye. You are not a US citizen, but you have it pretty good. You have a steady job, and you can support your family in a simple way. You walk with headphones on, and a bit of a smile. Just a day like any other.
Around the corner, unbeknownst to you, my friend, there is a drama playing out. In broad daylight, while another man sits in his living room, his basement window breaks. Someone is going to force their way into his place! Such a scary moment for anyone, to be inside our own home and have someone break in and maybe rob and even kill us. We all want to be safe in our homes. The homeowner runs downstairs to confront the intruder. But the man at the window must have heard his steps, because he has stood up and is starting to run away. He has a backpack and a baseball cap on and he looks – well, the homeowner isn’t sure if he saw his face but maybe he slightly turned around and anyway he had on a dark jacket, a backpack and a baseball cap.
The cops cruise the neighborhood and a couple blocks away who do they see but – you. You don’t hear the sirens with your music on. You are bopping along to the beat, thinking about your willful little girl who demanded one more hug. Haha, she is just like her mother. A strong character. A good heart. You smile again. You are walking briskly to the beat uphill toward your job. You have to get to work on time. The cops seem to come out of nowhere and you are face down on the ground and being cuffed. You didn’t hear when they told you to freeze and put your hands up. So they are being rough with you, thinking you were resisting. What is going on? What is happening? Oh my God.
The cops take you in handcuffs to the homeowner’s house. They tell him, we caught this guy sweating and half-running a couple blocks from here. Is this him? Is this the guy? We think this is the guy. Right? It’s the guy. The homeowner sees you, really sweating now, already in cuffs, with your backpack and your dark jacket that one of the cops is holding. It’s you. You are the guy who tried to break into his house in broad daylight. You are the criminal we all fear and hate. Thank God the bad guy is caught and we are safe again. Thank God. Yes, that’s him, the homeowner says. That’s him. It was him.
You are taken to jail and booked for criminal trespass. That charge is up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. If you don’t hurry up and plead guilty to that, they may also end up charging you with residential burglary, which is a Class B Felony and carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $20,000 fine. You are not going to show up for work today, and your boss is going to be worried about you, because you always show up. You do a good job, and your boss will never believe that you stopped on your way to work to break into a house in the middle of the day. But what if a local jury does believe it? Do you want to take that risk? It is up to you.
You think about it. You are sitting in jail because you don’t want your family to use their rent money to bail you out, and your boss says if you can get out within a couple weeks he will hold your job for you. You think about it. You have a lot of time to think about it. Because you are in jail, away from everyone, not working, not having dinner with your family, not walking to work a couple minutes late – what if you had left on time? Would any of this have happened? But it did, and now you think and think again. What is the best thing for you and your family? Trial and a possible acquittal? Yes, but at the risk of ten years in prison followed by deportation? Or take a misdemeanor deal and be done with it? But then you are admitting to something you didn’t do, and you will have a record. Think and think again.
Your lawyer comes with bad news after interviewing the crime victim. He was unshaken, completely convinced and ready to testify that it was you, and only you, who tried to get into his house. The lawyer tried to create some doubt – he reminded him that he never saw your face. That your dark jacket and baseball cap and backpack are so common. But the homeowner just cut him off and said he knows what the lawyer is trying to do and he isn’t going to fall for it. He knows it was you and he will testify under oath that you turned around – he saw your face – he would know you anywhere. He is happy to testify – he is looking forward to it. It pisses him off that someone would break his window in broad daylight and he wants you punished.
The lawyer lays out the options once again: We can argue to the jury that the way they identified you was wrong – they shouldn’t have brought you to the house but should have done a real line-up, but the guy is really convincing. I think the jury will believe him. We can bring your boss in to say he doesn’t think you would do that, and that you were due at work. But your boss wasn’t there – the homeowner was. The prosecutor sat in on the interview with the homeowner, and he says he is even more confident now that they will get you on the felony residential burglary, a deportable offense. They plan to file it within the week, unless you plea out to the lesser charge.
The lawyer tells you he hates to say it, but you may be found guilty in a fair and impartial trial. the jury members might believe the police and the homeowner, and really think you did it. They might be convinced that you did it, beyond a reasonable doubt. It isn’t really about whether you did it. It is about whether the jury believes you did it. They get to decide if the government proved their case. So you should probably very strongly consider making an Alford Plea. You will be saying that you didn’t do it, but you believe you will be convicted anyway, so you opt to plead guilty to a lesser charge. It is up to you, but you need to decide pretty much right now.
This, my friends, is an Alford Plea. Yes, you have the right to a fair and impartial trial. But you do not have the right to a fair outcome. So it is absolutely legal for you to be convicted of something you did not do. And it is legal for you, in wishing to avoid the dire consequences of that, to plead guilty to something you did not do.