Today marks the 47th anniversary of the landmark decision in North Carolina v. Alford in which the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of a judge accepting a guilty plea from a Defendant who wanted to plead guilty while still protesting their innocence. This decision established a brand new plea called an Alford plea, in which a defendant agrees to be sentenced for the crime but does not admit guilt.
The case that made the basis for the decision is an interesting window into all the factors that go into determining whether or not to plead guilty for a crime. In late 1963 Hennery Alford was an African American in the South during the height of the civil rights movement. Alford had a lengthy criminal history including a prior conviction for murder. Alford had gone to a bar to visit a sex-worker and of over the course of that night, Alford got into a fight with Nathanial Young. Later that night Nathanl Young was killed with a shotgun blast to the chest. In December 1963 Alford was indicted for first Degree Murder which at the time carried the Death Penalty if Alford went to Trail and was convicted by a jury. At the time, the Death Penalty was the default sentence in the defendant plead not guilty, was found guilty and the jury did not recommend life in prison.
Alfords lawyer was fresh out of law school and had interviewed several witnesses regarding Alfords case. Witnesses stated that Alford has said he was going to kill Young, and Eye witnesses saw Alford retrieving his shotgun. Witnesses also stated that Alford had admitted to killing Young when he returned home. The Lawyer was convinced of Alford’s guilt and knew that Alford would probably be found guilty at trial. However, Alford maintained his innocence, and ultimately the decision of whether to plead guilty was his to make. Alfords lawyer advised him to plead guilty to second degree murder to avoid the Death Penalty. Prior to Alford’s plea the Court heard from witnesses. While there were no eye witnesses to the murder, the court heard testimony that Alford had stated he was going to Kill Young, retrieved his shotgun, was seen with his shotgun returning from Young’s house, and had stated he had killed Young.
Alford then plead guilty to second degree murder, but then insisted he was innocent and was only pleading to avoid the Death Penalty. The judge then sentenced Alford to thirty years in prison. Subsequently Alford appealed his conviction.
Alford appealed and requested a new trial arguing his guilty plea had been coerced in violation of the 5th amendment of the constitution. After having his conviction affirmed by the North Carolina Appeals Court and the Supreme Court of North Carolina, Alford filed for a writ of Habeas Corpus to the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. In his writ, Alford argued that his plea was not voluntary and thus was a violation of 5th amendment. The District Court affirmed his ruling, but was later vacated by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court reasoned that Alford’s plea was the result of coercion because it was made under fear of death. The State appealed the reversal to the Supreme Court who granted certiorari in mid-1969.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in November 1969, and later had the case re-argued in October 1970. The State argued that Alford had made his plea voluntarily because he made the plea knowing the risk he faced if he asserted his innocence, and the State had produced enough evidence to strongly indicate that Alford was guilty. Once again, Alford argued that plea was not voluntary and that he had not been competently represented by his trial lawyer.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on November 23rd 1970. In a 6 – 3 decision the majority lead by Justice Bryon White. The majority stated they had accepted the case for review because several states at the time allowed for certain punishments only if the Defendant admitted guilt. The Majority held that the court could accept a guilty plea from a defendant if they had been adequately represented by a competent lawyer. The Court went on to note that if Alford had made a plea bargain only to receive a lesser sentence, his guilty plea would be valid. Thus, the Court reasoned that choosing to plead guilty to avoid a harsher sentence was analogues to accepting a plea for a lesser sentence. The Court held that a judge may accept a guilty plea from a Defendant who asserts his innocence if the Defendant had been properly advised, and the State provided strong evidence of guilt. The Court also stated that if a Defendant wished to plead guilty this way, the Defendant must acknowledge in their plea that the State could establish their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, The Supreme Court Affirmed Alford’s thirty-year sentence.
The Decent lead by Justice William Brennan argued that capital punishment was a violation of the 8th amendment. Thus, the Dissent argued that because the punishment was unconstitutional, Alford’s plea was coerced. The Dissent argued that Alford’s plea should be vacated and he should get a new trial.
Following the judgment, Alford died in prison in 1975 of cancer. North Carolina v. Alford established a new kind of plea subsequently called an Alford plea. This plea has been heavily criticized by legal scholars, and by the Department of Justice itself. Scholars have criticized the plea as an example of what is wrong with the system of plea bargaining. The US Attorney’s manual, the handbook for Assistant US Attorneys heavily advises against accepting Alford plea’s unless it is an exceptional and highly unusual circumstances. Critics have also argued that Alford pleas are immoral and undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system as it allows the State to send someone to jail who still actively professes their innocence. Proponents of this plea have argued it allows for a constitutional and efficient way of allowing Defendants to plea guilty while maintaining innocence when such a plea is the best possible option. What is clear is that experienced legal representation is essential for understand your options in the criminal justice system.
By Hunter White
 Alford v. North Carolina, 405 F.2d 340 (4th Cir. 1968)
 North Carolina v. Alford, 394 U.S. 956, 89 S. Ct. 1306 (1969)