North Carolina v. Alford

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North Carolina v. Alford
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued November 17, 1969
Reargued October 14, 1970
Decided November 23, 1970
Full case nameNorth Carolina v. Alford
Citations400 U.S. 25 (more)
91 S. Ct. 160; 27 L. Ed. 2d 162
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorAlford v. North Carolina, 405 F.2d 340 (4th Cir. 1968), probable jurisdiction noted, 394 U.S. 956 (1969).
There are no constitutional barriers in place to prevent a judge from accepting a guilty plea from a defendant who wants to plead guilty while still protesting his innocence under extreme duress in a detainee status.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Case opinions
MajorityWhite, joined by Burger, Harlan, Stewart, Blackmun
DissentBrennan, joined by Douglas, Marshall

North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970),[1] was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed that there are no constitutional barriers in place to prevent a judge from accepting a guilty plea from a defendant who wants to plead guilty while still protesting his innocence under duress as a detainee status.[2] This type of plea has become known as an Alford plea, differing slightly from the nolo contendere plea in which the defendant agrees to being sentenced for the crime, but does not admit guilt.[1] Alford died in prison in 1975.


Trial and appeals[edit]

Henry Alford was a black man in the South at the height of the civil rights movement. He had visited a prostitute at a bar and allegedly got into a fight with Nathaniel Young. Young was later killed from a shotgun blast. Henry Alford was indicted for first-degree murder in North Carolina in December 1963.[2] His attorney, having graduated just a few years previously, interviewed several witnesses and was convinced of Alford's guilt. Despite Alford’s claims of innocence and no eyewitness to the crime, witnesses saw him retrieve his gun, shortly before the murder, state he was going to kill the victim, and then upon returning home, stated that he had carried out the act. Alford also had a lengthy criminal history, including a prior conviction for murder. The attorney believed that Alford would probably be convicted in a trial,[2] and thus recommended Alford plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in order to avoid the death penalty. Ultimately, however, the decision was up to Alford.[2] Before the plea was entered, the court heard sworn testimony from three witnesses.[2] There were no eyewitnesses to the murder, but witnesses swore that Alford had taken his gun from his house and declared he was going to kill the victim, and upon returning, stated that he had killed the victim.[2] Alford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder but declared to the court that he was in fact innocent, and was pleading guilty only to avoid the death penalty, which might have been applied had he been convicted of first-degree murder.[1]

The judge sentenced Alford to the maximum second-degree murder penalty of 30 years in prison.[1] Alford appealed on the constitutional ground that his plea was "the product of fear and coercion", in violation of his constitutional rights. A federal appeals court ruled that the plea was involuntary because it was motivated by fear of the death sentence, and the court should have rejected the guilty plea.[1] The federal appeals court vacated the sentence of the lower court.[1]

Supreme Court ruling[edit]


Justice Byron White wrote that the Court had accepted the case for review because some states authorized conviction only for a crime “where guilt is shown,” including by means of a guilty plea that included an actual admission of guilt; but “others have concluded that they should not ‘force any defense on a defendant in a criminal case,’ particularly when advancement of the defense might ‘end in disaster...’” and therefore would accept a guilty plea in Alford's circumstances.[2]

White wrote that courts may accept whatever plea a defendant chooses to enter, as long as the defendant is competently represented by counsel; the plea is intelligently chosen; and “the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.”[2] Faced with “grim alternatives,” the defendant's best choice of action may be to plead guilty to the crime, White wrote, and the courts must accept the defendant's choice made in his own interests.[2]


In the dissent, Justice William Brennan stated that capital punishment in the United States was unconstitutional, and wrote that the actual effect of this unconstitutional threat to Alford was to induce a guilty plea.[2] He concluded the plea should have been vacated and Alford should have been retried, writing: "the facts set out in the majority opinion demonstrate that Alford was 'so gripped by fear of the death penalty' that his decision to plead guilty was not voluntary but was "the product of duress as much so as choice reflecting physical constraint."[2]


Stephanos Bibas (who would be appointed as a federal judge by President Donald Trump in 2017) has spoken out against the Alford plea on the moral ground that it undermines public confidence in the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system, sending some people to jail who profess innocence; and that it dodges the "morality play" aspect of a criminal trial, in which the community sees that the guilty are punished.[3] Alford died in prison in 1975.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Champion, Dean J. (1998). Dictionary of American Criminal Justice: Key Terms and Major Supreme Court Cases. Routledge. p. 250. ISBN 1-57958-073-4.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Acker, James R.; David C. Brody (2004). Criminal Procedure: A Contemporary Perspective. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 485–488. ISBN 0-7637-3169-2.
  3. ^ Bibas, Stephanos (2003). "Harmonizing Substantive Criminal Law Values and Criminal Procedure: The Case of Alford and Nolo Contendere Pleas". Cornell Law Review. 88 (6). doi:10.2139/ssrn.348681.

Further reading[edit]

  • McConville, Mike (1998). "Plea Bargainings: Ethics and Politics". Journal of Law and Society. 25 (4): 562–587. doi:10.1111/1467-6478.00103.
  • Shipley, Curtis J. (1987). "The Alford Plea: A Necessary But Unpredictable Tool for the Criminal Defendant". Iowa Law Review. 72: 1063. ISSN 0021-0552.
  • Ward, Bryan H. (2003). "A Plea Best Not Taken: Why Criminal Defendants Should Avoid the Alford Plea". Missouri Law Review. 68: 913. ISSN 0026-6604.

External links[edit]

Court cases