The Alford Plea: Do the Cons Outweigh the Pros?

by Abby Wearden

In Baltimore Maryland in the year 1998, James L. Owens and James A. Thompson were both convicted of the rape and murder of 24-year old college student Colleen Williar (1). In 2006, new DNA evidence surfaced regarding this crime that showed that both semen and blood samples found on the crime scene were not matches to either Owens or Thompson. With this new information, both men were potentially up for a retrial, and having this in mind, State prosecutors offered both men Alford Pleas. This plea, receiving its name sake from the 1969 Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford (2), is defined by the Legal Information Institute as “Also known as a ‘best interest plea’, an Alford registers as a formal claim of neither guilt nor innocence of charges brought against a defendant in criminal court….an Alford plea arrests the full process of a criminal trial because the defendant–typically, only with the courts permission—accepts all ramifications of a guilty verdict without first attesting to having committed the crime”(3). The Alford plea would allow both men to say they were innocent, be immediately removed from jail, but would legally they would still remain guilty and carry this crime on their records. State prosecutors insisted to both men that they still had enough evidence to keep them on the murder convictions, and if they went to trial they would remain locked up. Thompson, a desperate man who had served nearly 20 years in prison, took the plea and walked out of prison that same day(4). The crime is still on his record and he remains a convicted felon. Owens on the other hand, took a legal risk and refused the deal, telling his attorney Steven Mercer that he wanted to clear his name and would wait however long it took. Sixteen months later, in fall of 2008, the State prosecutor informed the judge that the State was declining to prosecute, and Owens walked out of jail completely exonerated. He later sued the State for the 21 years he spent wrongfully imprisoned and was awarded a settlement of 9 million dollars. Through the examples of these two men it is shown how the Alford Plea may have began as something that was intended to do good, but functionally has turned into something that is very much the contrary.

It is easily forgotten that although the Alford Plea may have a negative legacy, the intentions in which it was created with were positive. The Alford Plea was created in 1970, at the time Henry C. Alford was indicted for first degree murder(5). North Carolina laws stated that at the time, capital punishment was the default for this crime if the defendant plead not guilty and the jury did not suggest life imprisonment. Out of fear for his life, Alford plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty, later filing a writ of habeas corpus that eventually led his case to the Supreme Court. In a majority decision written by Justice White, the court stated that a defendant may use this plea when advised by a competent attorney, and when “He concludes his interests required a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt”. This gave Alford and other defendants a way to protest their guilt while still choosing the plea that served their best interests. As with almost any other plea bargain, “the hope of reduction in punishment is the prime motivation for defendants to waive a significant amount of their constitutional rights and enter a plea of guilty”(6). The possibility of receiving a lessened sentence is something all defendants inherently desire. In continuance of this idea, defendants will also receive certainty. Not only will they be aware of their deal ahead of time, the Alford Plea also provides security against the enormous risk of going to trial and potentially spending more time behind bars, on top of the sentences they have already served. This certainty can provide comfort to the defendant and their family. Finally, the Alford Plea allows both defendants and their counsel to refrain from perjuring themselves to the court and removes the incentive to lie. If a defendant is innocent but still chooses the plea deal out of the interest of security, their attorney is no longer in an ethical dilemma of whether or not they should allow their innocent client to plead to something they did not commit, with Alford because it allows them to still maintain their innocence. For these reasons, Alford pleas at times may seem to work in favor of the defendant and their best wishes, but functionally, Alford is used in a much different way that does not yield as positive results.

Although the theory of the Alford plea may seem positive facially, in practice, this plea is often abused or creates negative results from its use. Alford pleas may offer defendants security, and immediate relief from their charges, but prosecutors often times use Alford maintain their courtroom records or to cover up misconduct. Rose states that an Alabama ACLU attorney who eventually lead the prosecution to exonerate their client after multiple Alford plea attempts “only because we were continuing to expose prosecutorial misconduct” (7) which the prosecution greatly feared. In the instance of Owen’s own civil trial, it was uncovered that Owen’s attorney had not been made aware of Thompson’s many changing stories (Thompson’s testimony against Owen’s was a large part of his conviction) as well as other witnesses faltering testimony. This is referred to as a Brady violation(8), named after the 1963 Supreme Court case in which the court stated that the “suppression of evidence favorable to the accused upon request violates the due process where evidence is material to either guilt or punishment”(9). If Owens had done what the prosecution had preferred, and taken the Alford plea, justice would not have been served and prosecutorial misconduct would have largely been completely covered. Alford pleas do not allow defendants to sue for wrongful imprisonment and other types of misconduct which allows this type of misconduct to be perpetuated. Not only do these pleas harm the justice system as a whole, it is also important to remember the damaging effects of this plea has on the victims and their families. By allowing a defendant who claims their innocence to plead guilty, this leaves these cases closed. Keeping these cases closed with no investigation means that the true culprit of these crimes is often left undiscovered and unpunished. Defendants who take Alford pleas also may believe they are receiving a deal at the time, but it causes damaging effects once they are released from prison. These effects “could include losing government benefits or the legal right to vote” and render many defendants feeling as though they are “psychological slave(s)”(10) to the courts, with the prosecution convincing them to believe there is still enough evidence to convict them at any time. Those who take Alford pleas also have many challenges finding jobs and effectively re-entering society, with Thompson expressing on a job application he put a question mark where it asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony. He pleaded that he had been wrongfully accused, but “people don’t want to hear that”(11).

Overall, the Alford plea as well as many other plea bargains began as something that was seen as a compromise for both parties, that served everyone’s interests equally. Throughout time, the use of the Alford plea has begun to show that practically, this deal has benefited the prosecution greatly, to the detriment to the defendant as well as the justice system as a whole. It is time to analyze whether or not the Alford plea is serving the purpose it was intended to serve, or if it is inhibiting the due process of law.

1. Rose, Megan. “Baltimore to Pay Largest settlement in City History-$9 million-to Man Wrongfully Convicted of


9-million-to-man-wrongfully-convicted-of-murder(accessed December 11, 2018)

2. North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25

3. “Alford Plea”. Legal Information Institute. December 11, 2018)

4. Rose, Megan. “What Does an Innocence Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.” December 11, 2018)

5. North Carolina v. Alford.” Justia U.S. Supreme Court”. December 13, 2018)

6. Ward, Bryan. ” Plea Best Not Taken: Why Criminal Defendants Should Avoid Taking the Alford Plea”. Missouri Law Review Vol. 68 (2003)1-33.

7. Rose. “What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.”

8. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83

9. Id 87-88

10. Feuer, Allen. “Alford pleas: A Violation of Rights or a Psychological Slave?”. The Seattle Times. December 13, 2018)

11. Rose. “What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.