In 2006, James Thompson of Baltimore, Maryland, pled guilty to the rape and murder of a 24-year-old college student. He was then released from prison on an “Alford plea.”
The murder took place in 1987, and Thompson was found guilty of the murder then, along with another Baltimore man, James Owens. However, in 2006, DNA evidence analyzing the semen in the victim’s body proved that neither Thompson nor Owens committed the rape.
In other words, the evidence proved that the men who had been found guilty of the crime couldn’t have committed the crime. Owens maintained his innocence the whole time and went on to be exonerated in 2008. Thompson, however, was offered an Alford plea—a special type of plea in which the accused agrees to plead guilty, but is able to go free after the fact once there is a possibility of a retrial.
Why the Alford Plea Might Be Offered
Prosecutors will sometimes offer an Alford plea to maintain their reputations and good standing after prosecuting an innocent person. This happens when, years later, new evidence comes to light that proves the innocent party (who has by now had years of life taken from them in prison) couldn’t have committed the crime.
This puts the prosecution in an awkward position. Believe it or not, the prosecution can become more interested in proving a theory than in ensuring the right person gets punished for the crime. This might sometimes lead them to make professional or ethical oversights when pursuing cases. These oversights might all come to light if a case is reopened years later.
Not to mention the fact that a switch in the previous verdict would leave the prosecutor with a cold case, potentially forever.
For all these reasons, the prosecution might choose to offer an Alford plea—”officially,” the defendant is guilty, but they still go free.
What the Alford Plea Means for the Accused
You might wonder why the accused would ever accept an Alford plea. If it’s only offered when the prosecution knows they’ve goofed, why would anyone agree to plead guilty?
One reason is that an Alford plea might mean immediate release, while a trial takes time. Another reason is that the trial isn’t a guaranteed thing—as anyone who has been convicted of a crime they didn’t commit will know only too well. Some choose to go for the sure thing—the Alford plea—rather than rolling the dice on a trial that could go very badly for the accused.
So whether the accused accepts the Alford plea or takes the case to trial, it’s a major decision calling for expert guidance.
Since 2014, the Law Office of Michael D. Litman has been representing the criminal defense needs of the citizens of White Plains, Westchester County, and the New York Metro area. With attorney Michael Litman defending his clients since 2007, we have the knowledge and the experience to help with all your criminal defense needs. If you have questions or need to set up a consultation, contact us online or call us today at (914) 268-6855. Our firm will work with you from the arraignment all the way through to the trial.