Examining Alford Pleas and the Presumption of Strong Evidence



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In North Carolina v. Alford (1970), the Supreme Court held that defendants who claim innocence but perceive their chances of acquittal at trial to be too risky can still plead guilty so long as there is a sufficient factual basis of guilt against the defendant. However, “sufficient” has never been defined by the courts and thus pleas could be accepted for a variety of reasons with differential standards applied in different cases (Shipley, 1987). Using a mixed method approach, this dissertation adds to the limited research surrounding Alford pleas by examining how these pleas compare to traditional guilty pleas in their case processing (i.e., length of case disposal) and sentencing outcomes (i.e., sentence length, sentence reduction, and carceral sentence). Additionally, this dissertation explores the process of negotiating, offering, and accepting Alford pleas, to better understand how these unique pleas function in practice. Analysis of a sample of Virginia court cases indicated that Alford plea cases took longer to dispose of and generally received less favorable sentences than traditional guilty pleas. Specifically, Alford pleas received longer sentences, were less likely to receive a full sentence reduction as compared to traditional guilty pleas, and were more likely to receive incarceration as part of their sentence. However, Alford pleas were not significantly different from traditional guilty pleas when no sentence reduction was given nor in the size of the sentence reduction (if one was given). Additionally, interviews with court actors (i.e., judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys) indicated that these pleas are negotiated similarly to traditional guilty pleas, and often only come up near the plea hearing when the defendant is reluctant to plead guilty but also opposed to going to trial. The majority of prosecutors and defense attorneys stated that the strength of evidence is not a driving factor or consideration in the decision to enter an Alford plea rather than a traditional guilty plea. Similarly, judges also report no differences in the strength of evidence in Alford plea cases and stated that they do not treat their review of evidence any differently in these cases than traditional guilty pleas. Ultimately, Virginia prosecutors and defense attorneys argue that the risk of facing jury sentencing is a much more important factor for reluctant defendants to enter an Alford plea.