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Legal Minds Explain Alford Plea

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  "An Alford plea is a guilty plea, just like any other guilty plea," said Robert Rigg, professor of law at Drake University Law School. "The only difference is the defendant doesn't have to give the factual basis for the plea."

The Alford plea is named after a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1970: North Carolina v. Alford.

"It was a death penalty case, originally, is where it came from," said Rigg. "Where the client wanted to plead guilty, but couldn't give a factual basis, but wanted to take advantage of the plea negotiations."

By entering an Alford plea, the defendant has to agree that the case against him or her is strong, and that based on the evidence they'd probably be found guilty if it went to trial. An Alford plea gives the defendant the opportunity to take advantage of plea negotiations, such as a reduction of the charge or a specific sentencing recommendation by the prosecution.

Why would someone enter an Alford plea?

"Probably because there's some reason the client wants to be able to say, 'I didn't admit to this or couldn't admit to this because this particular issue,'" said Rigg. "And that varies from case to case."

A person may not want to simply stand up and say, 'I'm guilty' for a variety of different reasons.

"The client may not be able to do that either because a client was injured or a client was under the influence, or the client may not want to do that for financial liability purposes," said Rigg. "So you won't have that admission on the record. Well, that's the good news. The bad news, it's still a guilty plea."

The Alford plea is a tool that can be beneficial to both defense attorneys and prosecutors.

"Both sides, I think, would recognize that going to trial is always a risk," said Steve Foritano, Practitioner in Residence at Drake University Law School. "There's always a chance that from the defendant's side that he could be convicted of the maximum charges. And on the state side, there's always that chance that he could be found not guilty. So there's always a huge risk whenever you go to a trial, no matter how you think the facts are or how strong you think the facts are."