Alford Plea
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Basic Information

In United States Law, an Alford Plea is a specific subset of Guilty Plea where the Defendant maintains their innocence, but admits that evidence exists that may lead a jury to reasonably render a guilty verdict.

It's named for Henry Alford, a man who was on trial for murder in 1963. The way the laws governing homicide and sentencing worked meant that if Alford pled guilty, he could not get the worst punishment, namely execution. Capital punishment was reserved for those who not only murdered, but who endeavored to escape punishment. The intent of this bit of law was to encourage guilty parties to surrender and admit their wrongdoing instead of putting up a defense that would lead to an expensive criminal trial. Alford maintained his innocence, but felt that he had no choice but to plead guilty so as to avoid being sent to the gas chamber. His argument was that this amounted to coercion. This lead to a series of appeals that eventually ended up at the Supreme Court of the United States.

Ever since, US law has included a provision known as the Alford Doctrine, where a defendant can enter "a plea of guilty containing a protestation of innocence". In some jurisdictions it's a sort of "no contest" or nolo contendere plea, rather than being a form of guilty. (This arcanist is not a lawyer, so the distinction is beyond me.) The Alford Plea has become a common part of many Plea Bargain arrangements, where the prosecutor and defense attorney come to an agreement where the defendant will plead guilty to a smaller crime than the worst possible one that might possibly be leveled against them if they were to fight the charges.

In order for an Alford Plea to be legal, the defendant must profess their innocence, and both they and the courts must acknowledge that some evidence exists that suggests their guilt. In theory this second clause (the acknowledgement of evidence) protects the innocent from being railroaded by over-zealous police or prosecution or incompetent defense lawyers who might otherwise pressure or bluff the wrong suspect into a deal.

The existence of the Alford Plea also eliminates a "double-whammy" or "catch-22" that would otherwise trip up anyone wrongly accused of a crime. If your only way to reduce your sentence were to lie in court and say you were guilty when you weren't, not only would it be harder to appeal later, but you could be setting yourself up for perjury charge later should you win on appeal or be acquitted on some technicality.


2. Podcast: In The Dark Season 2 talks about the Alford Plea in regards to the Curtis Flowers trials

Game and Story Use

  • Player Characters, especially those in a modern urban fantasy campaign, seem likely to end up in the weird sort of legal trouble where an Alford Plea is their best bet.
    • "Your honor, I maintain that I did not murder that man. He was murdered by a vampire in another jurisdiction over 300 years ago, and subsequently rose as a creature of the night. I view what I did as a mercy to him and a service to the community. I'm not convinced the undead even have legal status, but I am willing to accept an Alford plea since so many witnesses did see me plunge a wooden stake into his chest." :)
      • In that particular case most modern courts would probably refer the defendant for psychiatric assessment and/or record the plea as not guilty due to incapacity… but it's an interesting example. Where the masquerade has broken down on the other hand… well, someone needs to make the case law…

Disclaimer: This arcanist is not a lawyer, and the above page is not legal advice. Always consult with an attorney before staking the undead.

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