In the tradition of popular TV series like Ozark, Succession, Yosemite, and Breaking Bad, last week’s column was a cliffhanger. As you may remember, as I signed off I was ensconced in bucolic Findlay, Ohio busily preparing for a jury trial in Hancock County Common Pleas Court that was scheduled to begin on Monday, October 2. I had done my due diligence, readied my defense, pored over the prosecution’s exhibits, and was geared up for voir dire which is fancy way of saying selecting a jury. Just wait, there’s more legalese to come in the column.
Anyway, I was fired up, ready to go and—now for the resolution of the cliffhanger you’ve all been sitting on the edge of your seats awaiting: the verdict. Was my client found guilty or not guilty by a jury of his peers? Well, you can sit back and relax there was no courtroom drama because my client was offered accepted a plea deal before the trial began.
To be more specific, he entered an Alford Plea which permits defendants to admit to criminal charges while maintaining their innocence. A defendant who enters an Alford Plea is, in essence, acknowledging that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them even if they did not commit the crime. To understand why an innocent person would agree to plead guilty, it is helpful to examine the case of Henry Alford, the man for whom the Alford Plea is named.
In 1963 Mr. Alford was indicted for first degree murder in North Carolina where the death penalty was the default sentence for the offense at the time. Alford would probably have received a life sentence had he pleaded guilty, but he maintained his innocence. He subsequently agreed to plead to second degree murder for one reason and one reason only: to avoid the gas chamber. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Alford appealed, arguing that he was forced into a guilty plea because he was afraid he would be sentenced to death. The North Carolina Supreme Court and a Federal District Court both found that Alford had entered the guilty plea voluntarily and denied his appeal. The Fourth Circuit Court disagreed and held that Alford’s plea was not voluntary because it was made under fear of the death penalty.
In a 6-3 decision handed down in 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court. Writing for the majority Justice Byron “Whizzer” White said courts may accept whatever plea a defendant chooses to enter, as long as the defendant is competently represented by counsel; the plea is intelligently chosen; and “the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.” Faced with “grim alternatives,” the defendant’s best choice of action may be to plead guilty to the crime and the courts must accept the defendant’s choice made in his own interests.
Since then, the Alford Plea have become an important component of a criminal justice system in which more than 90% of cases are resolved with plea bargains. As I did last week, I have advised defendants to enter Alford Pleas. Why? Because although I revere the jury system, clients I knew to be innocent were convicted and received stiffer sentences than would have been imposed had they agreed to a plea deal.
Does the fact that the Hancock County case ended in a plea deal mean all the work I did to prepare for it was wasted? The answer is no. In the course of dissecting the prosecution’s case I discovered some evidence that I believed was inadmissible and should not be heard by the jury. Based on that discovery, I filed, and the judge granted what is known as a “motion in limine” which excluded the evidence in question from the case. The exclusion of that evidence significantly weakened the state’s case, substantially strengthened my bargaining position, and enabled me to secure the best possible outcome for my client.