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'Alford plea' has the same effect as a guilty plea

I've seen the term "Alford plea" in a couple of Mail Tribune stories recently. I first noticed it in the story about the convictions related to the girl who died after inhaling helium at a party, then in Jordan Criado's plea hearing about his murder and arson charges. What exactly is an Alford plea? It doesn't look that much different than a guilty plea. Hoping for a little enlightenment on the matter.

— No name given

Enlightenment you shall have, mysterious sir. Or ma'am.

The answer is actually quite simple. Unlike a guilty plea, in which a defendant admits to wrongdoing, an Alford plea is an admission that the facts are not in the defendant's favor. A defendant using an Alford plea, such as Jordan Criado, is stipulating that the facts of the case would likely lead to a conviction if the case went to trial.

Some wags have labeled it the "I'm guilty but I didn't do it" plea.

"It has the same legal effect as a guilty plea. You're just not saying you're guilty," said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert. "It's been around for a long time."

According to several sources, including Cornell University Law School, the term came out of a 1963 case in which Henry Alford was indicted for first-degree murder in a shooting death in North Carolina.

If convicted, he faced a mandatory death penalty, but that would not be the case if he pleaded guilty. So he instead pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He later appealed his case, saying he was coerced into the guilty plea by the threat of possible execution. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, but the Supreme Court upheld the original conviction, with Justice Byron White writing that a defendant may enter such a plea "when he concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt."

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