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Alford plea: The 'yes, but' defense
Alford pleas: another way to plead to a case

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Date published: 3/16/2008


Criminal defendants traditionally enter a plea of "guilty" or "innocent" to a crime.

But since 1970, another plea has become commonplace: The court treats it as a guilty plea, yet allows the defendant to claim innocence at the same time.

The Alford plea, named after a North Carolina man, allows those charged to admit there's enough evidence to convict them, but at the same time maintain that they didn't commit the crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court first upheld a pleading of this nature in 1970, when the court found that Henry C. Alford of North Carolina, who had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in order to escape the death penalty, had constitutionally made the plea.

Since then, more and more defendants are putting the word "Alford" in front of their pleas.

Someone whose Alford plea is accepted by a judge still leaves with a conviction on his record.

Spotsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Neely, who has been a prosecutor for 25 years, said he attributes the increase to the culture of society today.

"It's kind of like a way of evading responsibility," Neely said. "It's a way to save face with family and the community."

But the deputy public defender for the area, Wendy Harris, said that's not the way she looks at it for many of her clients.

She said there often are legitimate reasons for a client to prefer an Alford plea over a straight guilty plea. For example, she said, defendants may agree with the end result that they committed a crime, but argue that the facts as presented by the prosecutor are slightly wrong.

"It's a way for them to maintain their story," she said.

Harris said other reasons for defendants to choose Alford pleas are if they are in custody battles, or if they have extensive criminal histories and would prefer to have a plea agreement that would avoid having their records used against them for sentencing purposes.

Local prosecutors and defense attorneys alike estimate that about 10 percent to 20 percent of all guilty pleas are Alford pleas.

Locally, Alford pleas are often seen in plea agreements.

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