Can I accept a plea offer without admitting I did anything wrong?
A defendant who says they are innocent but doesn’t want to risk going to trial can sometimes enter what has become known as an “Alford plea.” This plea is named after the Supreme Court decision in North Carolina v. Alford, which held that a plea of guilty by someone who claims to be innocent doesn't violate the Constitution.
What is an Alford plea?
In an Alford plea, a defendant both
- maintains their innocence, and
- admits there is likely enough evidence to convict them of the crime.
Why would a defendant plead guilty if they are innocent?
In situations where a person perceives a high likelihood they will be convicted of a crime, even though they know they did not commit it, an Alford plea can be the best option. This gives an innocent person who perceives the dangers of going to trial an opportunity to participate in plea negotiations and keep some control over their fate in the same way a guilty person could.
An Alford plea does not shield a defendant from punishment or a criminal record, even though it technically allows them to maintain their innocence.
Where does the Alford plea come from?
The United States Supreme Court ruled in North Carolina v. Alford that it was constitutional for a court to accept a defendant's guilty plea even if the defendant maintained his innocence, as long as
- there was a “strong factual basis for the plea", and
- the defendant clearly expressed his desire to enter the plea based on his belief that the State's evidence would be sufficient to convict him.
North Carolina v. Alford was a 1970 case involving a man named Henry Alford who was accused of murder. Alford claimed he was innocent but decided to plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid getting the death penalty. At the plea hearing, several witnesses said that Alford had left his house with a gun, that he was planning to kill the victim, and that he claimed to have killed the victim.
On appeal, one of the appellate courts argued that Alford’s guilty plea was not voluntary because the threat of the death penalty made him do it. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the threat of the death penalty didn't make the guilty plea forced. It also ruled that a defendant who claims to be innocent can plead guilty in certain situations, as long as it is "knowing, voluntary, and intelligent" and has a "factual basis". The testimony of witnesses at Alford’s plea hearing made it likely that he would be convicted of the crime, so it made rational sense for Alford to plead guilty. This is where the term Alford plea originated.
Importantly, the Supreme Court didn't rule that states must accept Alford pleas. Instead, it only ruled that the Constitution didn’t prohibit these types of pleas.
How an Alford plea compares to other types of pleas
Before accepting a guilty plea, trial court judges require an accused person to admit responsibility for the crime. Alford pleas, guilty pleas, and nolo contendere (also known as "no contest" pleas) all result in a conviction. The Alford plea is available in all states except Indiana, Michigan, and New Jersey.
How do you enter an Alford plea?
Entering an Alford plea requires multiple steps. A defendant must first explicitly say that they are entering an Alford plea and that they are aware of its implications. To confirm that the defendant is making a plea “voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently”, the defendant must acknowledge the following:
- I have reviewed the evidence that the state will offer against me if I have a trial.
- I believe that there is a substantial likelihood that I will be found guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the offense charged if the state's evidence is presented against me at trial.
- If the judge accepts my Alford guilty plea, I will be convicted of the offense to which I am pleading, and I will be considered just as guilty as I would be if I had admitted my guilt. My claim of innocence will not have any impact on the terms and conditions of my sentence, my probation (if any), or any collateral consequences stemming from my conviction, including civil commitment for treatment.
- I may be required to successfully complete treatment for my conduct underlying the offense to which I am pleading. If I am required to successfully complete such treatment and I refuse to admit my guilt in treatment, I may be discharged from treatment. Failure to complete such treatment may result in my incarceration, civil commitment for treatment, or both.
If these acknowledgments aren’t made, an Alford plea could be attacked on appeal on the grounds that it wasn't made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.
Why would you use an Alford plea?
If a defendant has been offered a beneficial plea offer from the prosecution, they may decide to enter an Alford plea of guilty despite their innocence to avoid the risk of going to trial. Even if you are innocent, going to trial can be a risk that has dire consequences. A plea bargain can allow a defendant to avoid more serious charges in return for a guilty plea on lesser charges. It can also reduce the severity of punishments a defendant may face for a crime. In short, it allows a defendant to maintain some control over their fate in circumstances that otherwise seem beyond their control.
However, to avoid innocent people being pressured into pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit, courts require strong evidence that supports the plea.
Why will some judges not accept Alford pleas?
No plea agreement is binding until a judge approves it. Judges must decide whether to accept plea terms before a defendant enters the plea. The judge will consider the following to make his or her decision:
- the gravity of the offense
- the factual basis for the plea
- the defendant's character
- the defendant's criminal history
- the interests of the victim, and
- the interests of the general public.
Alford pleas in Minnesota
Alford pleas are not uncommon in our state. Here are some examples of cases involving Alford pleas in Minnesota in 2022:
- In August 2022, a Willmar man was convicted of one felony count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to 25 years, with credit for 987 days served. Wharton was originally facing eight felony charges of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, but he entered an Alford plea to the one count, and the remaining charges were dismissed.
- In June 2022, a Wykoff man convicted of one count of felony 3rd-degree drug possession and one count of gross misdemeanor firearm possession received a sentence of five years’ probation after taking an Alford plea. Miller was also fined $1,050.00, with the option to serve 100 hours of community service in lieu of paying $1,000. Six additional charges were dropped.
- In April 2022, a Bloomington man convicted of one count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult was sentenced to serve 60 days on work release. Initially, Dietl faced four counts of criminal financial exploitation of a dependent adult. Three of the charges were dismissed, and the remaining offense was downgraded to a gross misdemeanor as part of an Alford plea.
Why Alford pleas are relevant today
The Alford plea has become an object of public interest thanks to the case of Michael Peterson, a writer who was found guilty of killing his wife Kathleen, whose body was found at the bottom of the stairs in their home in 2001. The case has been covered by two different television series streaming on Netflix and HBO Max.
Over the years, Michael Peterson has consistently claimed that he was innocent. In 2017, Peterson ended up entering an Alford plea. As part of the deal, Peterson accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time already served. This deal gave Peterson a chance to regain his freedom after years of fighting for his innocence. He’d lost faith in the criminal justice system after his first case revealed corruption: tainted blood spatter evidence and perjury by one of the prosecution’s witnesses.
Why would a truly innocent person take a plea deal?
This high-profile case has given rise to the question: Why would a truly innocent person take a plea deal?
Going to trial can be risky if the prosecution is likely going to be able to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This plea can allow a defendant to avoid jail time or more quickly move on from the case.
If you’ve been charged with a crime, you need to know all your options. Your defense lawyer should only advise you to accept a plea agreement of any kind if it is in your best interests to do so.
Our goal is always a complete acquittal or dismissal of the charges you’re facing, first and foremost. Our team of lawyers will work tirelessly on your behalf to obtain the best possible outcome for you, even for the most serious of crimes.
You can schedule a free initial consultation below. There, we can provide the guidance you need to get the best possible outcome for your criminal case.