Monday, February 19, 2007

'Alford plea' came from an N.C. case

What’s this ‘Alford plea’ all about?
A news story posted online at the Observer today indicates that former House Speaker Jim Black will go into state court Tuesday and make an “Alford plea” to charges stemming from a State Board of Elections investigation into campaign finance charges.
The Alford plea will allow him to plead guilty without admitting guilt to the charges.
A lot of folks, naturally, will say, “Huh?” It got some of my colleagues in the editorial department wondering what an Alford plea really is – and whether it applies only in state courts.
Turns out an Alford plea is applicable in both state and federal court. What’s also interesting is that Alford pleas originated here in North Carolina – at least according to Wikipedia, the online dictionary.
Here’s how the entry in Wikipedia begins:
"North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970)[1], was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed on a 5-3 vote that there are no constitutional barriers in place to prevent a judge from accepting a guilty plea from a defendant who wants to plead guilty while still protesting his innocence. This type of plea has become known as an Alford plea, differing slightly from the nolo contendere plea in which the defendant agrees to being sentenced for the crime, but does not admit guilt.”
“Henry Alford was indicted for first-degree murder in 1963,” Wikipedia said. “His attorney interviewed several witnesses who led him to believe Alford was guilty, and that Alford would probably be convicted in a trial. The attorney recommended Alford plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in order to face a lesser sentence, but left the decision to Alford. Before the plea was entered, the court heard sworn testimony from three witnesses. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder, but witnesses did swear that Alford had taken his gun from his house and declared he was going to kill the victim, and upon returning, stated that he had killed the victim. Alford pled guilty to second-degree murder, but declared to the court that he was in fact innocent, and was only pleading guilty to avoid the death penalty, which might have been applied had he been convicted of first-degree murder.”
It’s interesting to read the cast of lawyers involved in arguing the case on appeal. They included then-N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan and his chief deputy Andy Vanore, representing the state, and Charlotte lawyers Julius Chambers and James Ferguson.
For the final word about pleas from those who claim innocence, here’s this quotation (involving a 20th century British barrister and judge, William Birkett) cited by the Monroe County (N.Y.) Office of the Conflict Defender:
Prisoner: "As God is my judge, I am innocent."
Lord Birkett: "He isn’t. I am, and you’re not."

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