The use of guilty pleas as a coercive means of getting an innocent, or not quite as guilty as charged, defendant to compromise is nothing new. Prosecutors believe a defendant is guilty, and defendants profess their innocence. Stop the presses.
After Fred Steese spent two decades in a Nevada prison for murder, evidence indicating that he was innocent was found buried in the prosecution’s files. It was proof that Mr. Steese, as he’d always claimed, had been hundreds of miles away on the likely day of the murder and couldn’t have been the killer.
Concealing Brady material, which oddly goes unmentioned, is also nothing new. Most of the time, the undisclosed information doesn’t so much prove anything as provide fodder for trial that might have changed the calculus of taking a plea, or enabled a decent lawyer to raise a sufficient doubt for acquittal. Rarely, as in almost never, does it prove innocence.
In Maryland two years earlier, the conviction of James Thompson, who had also served 20 years for murder and rape and whose case involved police and prosecutorial misconduct, was thrown into overwhelming doubt when his DNA didn’t match the semen found in the victim.
The discovery of DNA, and its refined techniques, have been a game-changer for a few. Very few cases involve DNA, and even then, very few involve post-hoc DNA testing that ends up proving innocence. It’s not that guys in prison don’t want to try to get the DNA tested decades later. After all, if it comes back confirming their guilt, they lose nothing. If, by some miracle it doesn’t, they win.
And then there are the people who are, in fact, innocent. Thus far, the Innocence Project has exonerated 353 people. That’s not an insignificant number. And yet, out of the hundreds of thousands of people convicted of crimes, it’s also not exactly overwhelming. It surely understates the number of wrongfully convicted, but it provides little clue as to how many innocent people are sitting in prison.
In neither case did prosecutors jump to set the prisoner free. Instead they vowed to retry the men unless they agreed to a plea bargain called an Alford plea, in which the defendant enters a guilty plea while also asserting his innocence for the record. The deal allows the inmate to leave prison right away. But he remains convicted of the crime, forever a felon.
An “Alford plea”? So that’s the culprit?
No one appears to have tracked how often prosecutors use Alford pleas in cases where exculpatory evidence has surfaced that provides inmates with powerful ammunition to contest their guilt.
There are a few reasons why no one “appears” to have tracked Alford pleas. For one thing, they can’t track everything. For another, why would they?
In the interest of justice, prosecutors should have acknowledged that they couldn’t meet their burden of proof and cleared those inmates. Instead, they offered Alford pleas.
This is a glaringly false conflation of entirely unrelated things. If prosecutors couldn’t sustain their burden of proof, then the proper course would be to dismiss. If the defense was aware of it, then the defense’s proper course was to go to trial. The Alford plea has absolutely nothing to do with anything. It’s just a special form of plea.
An “Alford plea” is where a defendant agrees to plead guilty, conceding that the prosecution’s evidence is sufficient to sustain its burden of proof, but where the defendant does not admit guilt. It’s a plea of guilty, like any other, which theoretically permits the defendant to maintain innocence while pleading guilty. But the guilty plea is the same as any other guilty plea as far as its sentencing consequences go. Guilty.
If a defendant in a post-conviction proceeding is proven innocent, either by DNA testing or discovery of concealed Brady material, and the prosecution nonetheless maintains guilt and seeks to retry the case, the defendant is faced with the same options he would have in the first place. Cop a plea, usually to time served in this instance, or go to trial. Whether the plea is to the offense, a lesser offense or an Alford plea changes nothing.
The problems belying post-conviction proceedings for the wrongfully convicted is real, but the existence of Alford pleas has absolutely nothing to do with anything. The innocent defendant wants to get out as quickly as possible, and if a quick plea to time served will do it, whether by an ordinary plea or an Alford plea, he makes his choice. This doesn’t make the prosecution right, but it doesn’t make Alford pleas the problem. Leave Alford pleas alone.