What Is an Alford Plea?

The Alford Plea Explained

Getty/ Deborah Cheramie

In the law of the United States, an Alford plea (also called a Kennedy plea in West Virginia) is a plea in criminal court. In this plea, the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence, but admits that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty.

Upon receiving an Alford plea from a defendant, the court may immediately pronounce the defendant guilty and impose sentence as if the defendant had otherwise been convicted of the crime.

However, in many states, such as Massachusetts, a plea which "admits sufficient facts" more typically results in the case being continued without a finding and later dismissed.

It is the prospect of an ultimate dismissal of charges which engenders most pleas of this type.

In the law of the United States, an Alford plea is a plea in criminal court. In this plea, the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence, but admits that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty.

Upon receiving an Alford plea from a defendant, the court may immediately pronounce the defendant guilty and impose sentence as if the defendant had otherwise been convicted of the crime.

However, in many states, such as Massachusetts, a plea which "admits sufficient facts" more typically results in the case being continued without a finding and later dismissed.

It is the prospect of an ultimate dismissal of charges which engenders most pleas of this type.

Origin of the Alford Plea

The Alford Plea originated from a 1963 trial in North Carolina. Henry C. Alford was on trial for first-degree murder and insisted that he was innocent, despite three witnesses who said they heard him say he was going to kill the victim, that he got a gun, left the house and returned saying he had killed him.

Although there were no witnesses to the shooting, the evidence strongly indicated that Alford was guilty. His lawyer recommended that he plead guilty to second-degree murder in order to avoid being sentenced to death, which was the likely sentence he would receive in North Carolina at that time.

At that time in North Carolina, an accused who pled guilty to a capital offense could only be sentenced to life in prison, whereas, if the accused took his case to a jury and lost, the jury could vote for the death penalty.'

Alford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, stating to the court that he was innocent, but only pleading guilty so that he would not receive the death penalty.

His plea was accepted and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Alford later appealed his case to federal court, saying that he was coerced into pleading guilty out of fear of the death penalty. "I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn't, they would gas me for it," wrote Alford in one of his appeals.

The 4th Circuit Court ruled that the court should have rejected the plea which was involuntary because it was made under fear of the death penalty. The trial court verdict was then vacated.

The case was next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that for the plea to be accepted, the defendant must have been advised that his best decision in the case would be to enter a guilty plea.

The Court ruled that the defendant can enter such a plea "when he concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt".

The Court allowed the guilty plea along with a plea of innocence only because there was enough evidence to show that the prosecution had a strong case for a conviction, and the defendant was entering such a plea to avoid this possible sentencing. The Court also noted that even if the defendant could have shown that he would not have entered a guilty plea "but for" the rationale of receiving a lesser sentence, the plea itself would not have been ruled invalid. Because evidence existed that could have supported Alford's conviction, the Supreme Court ruled that his guilty plea was permitted while the defendant himself still maintained that he was not guilty.

Alford died in prison, in 1975.

Today Alford pleas are accepted in every U.S. state except Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey and the United States military.