But the most cited and most familiar Supreme Court case on plea bargaining is North Carolina v. Al-ford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). In 1970, North Carolina law provided that a penalty of life imprisonment would attach to a plea of guilty for a capital offense, but the death penalty would attach following a jury verdict of guilty (unless the jury recommended life imprisonment). Alford faced the death penalty for first-degree murder. Although he claimed innocence on all charges (in the face of strong evidence to the contrary), Alford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder prior to trial. The prosecutor accepted the plea, and he was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. Alford then appealed his case, claiming that his plea was involuntary because it was principally motivated by fear of the death penalty. His conviction was reversed on appeal. However, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a guilty plea which represents a voluntary and intelligent choice when considering the alternatives available to a defendant is not “compelled” within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment just because it was entered to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. (Alford had argued that his guilty plea to a lesser charge violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition that ‘”No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”) The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and reinstated Alford’s conviction and sentence.
The term “Alford Plea” has come to apply to any case in which the defendant tenders a guilty plea but denies that he or she has in fact committed the crime. The Alford plea is expressly prohibited in some states and limitedly allowed in others. In federal courts, the plea is conservatively permitted for certain defenses and under certain circumstances only.