This week saw another conviction vacated – a set of convictions, actually – as a result of the city’s crime lab mishandling DNA evidence. It’s created a mountain of work in the S.A.’s office as defense attorneys have filed appeals on every conviction won on the basis of DNA evidence handled by this lab during the time period in question.
In the case of the Campland Murder, in which three teenage girls were convicted of the murder of a fellow camper they had bullied, the S.A.’s strategy was to offer the three girls an Alford plea. An Alford plea is an unusual plea in which a defendant does not admit guilt while at the same time admitting that the prosecution could likely secure a conviction based upon the evidence they’ve compiled.
The Alford plea is named after Henry Alford, who, in 1963, was tried for first-degree murder in North Carolina, where at the time a guilty verdict for first-degree murder meant Alford would face capital punishment. The prosecutors had witness evidence that Alford had argued with the victim on the night of the murder. He left the victim’s house to return to his own residence to grab his gun. Later there was a knock at the victim’s door, and when he answered it, he was fatally shot by an assailant using Alford’s gun. Personally, I believe that Alford’s gun was sitting right next to Occam’s razor on the shelf, but Alford insisted he was innocent. However, fearing an automatic death sentence, he pled guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder. Alford later appealed, arguing that he was forced into the guilty plea because he was afraid of the possibility of receiving a death sentence. His appeal eventually went before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Alford’s plea was not voluntary since it was made under fear of the death penalty.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1970, where the highest court in the land decided that even if Alford could show that he only entered the guilty plea in order to receive a lesser sentence, the plea would not be invalid, since evidence existed that could support his conviction. Therefore, Alford’s guilty plea was allowable while Alford still maintained his innocence.
Alford pleas are not popular with federal prosecutors. In fact, the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual states that in federal cases, Alford pleas should be avoided “except in the most unusual circumstances.” Alford pleas are more common in local and state courts, however, because of the volume and nature of crimes prosecuted.
An Alford plea, by its nature, acknowledges the plea bargain system and a defendant’s interest in minimizing potential loss. Over 95% of criminal and civil cases never reach trial; instead, they are settled through attorney negotiation. The Alford plea recognizes this reality and allows a defendant to maintain innocence while, without lying, still making the most advantageous plea bargain possible. For this reason, the Alford plea is also sometimes known as a “best interests” plea.
The S.A.’s office wants to avoid a reversal in the Campland murder of Rosa Torres. But the unpalatable option of the Alford Plea has galvanized the girls’ defense attorneys into re-investigating the case while their clients try to decide whether to accept the plea. We still believe strongly that the evidence the S.A.’s office had at the time proved their guilt. But the ball is in their court now: do they make the Alford plea and get released? Or will they spend another year in prison awaiting their retrial, preserving their rights to sue the SA’s office and possibly land a multi-million dollar award from the city?