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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

What is an 'Alford plea' in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, criminal prosecution?

An Alford plea is named for man who in 1963 pled guilty to second degree murder in North Carolina to avoid facing the death penalty on the more serious offense of first degree murder.

In working up the case, his court appointed lawyer interviewed all but one of the eyewitnesses—and each of them painted a picture of guilt that likely could not be overcome. If Alford proceeded to trial, he would likely lose and, his lawyer and the defendant surmised, North Carolina would likely execute him.

Instead, the defendant negotiated a plea agreement allowing him to plead guilty to the lesser included offense of murder in the second degree to avoid the death penalty but subjected himself to the maximum thirty year prison sentence.

At his plea taking, a police officer, and two other witnesses, and the defendant testified. The police and the two witnesses who testified at his plea taking tended to establish the Defendant’s guilt. Interestingly, the defendant testified that he was innocent of the shooting death of the murder victim but that he still wanted to plead guilty to second degree murder to avoid the death penalty.

His quote, according to the United States Supreme Court decision, in answer to the district court judge’s question about whether he still wanted to plead guilty despite his professed innocence was, “yes, sir, I plead guilty on—from the circumstances that he told me.” Alford testified that he had been advised by his attorney regarding his trial rights and the explanation included the difference between first and second degree murder. The Court accepted his guilty plea as knowing and voluntary and then sentenced him to 30 years in prison. After he was convicted and serving the prison sentence, he challenged the process, alleging that the guilty plea was essentially coerced by the threat of execution.

The Supreme Court, Justice White writing for the majority, wrote that the Constitution did not prohibit acquiescence to a finding of guilt if it was the product of a voluntary and knowing decision.

“Alford now argues in effect that the State should not have allowed him this choice but should have insisted on proving him guilty of murder in the first degree. The States in their wisdom may take this course by statute or otherwise and may prohibit the practice of accepting pleas to lesser included offenses under any circumstances. 12 But this is not the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. The prohibitions against involuntary or unintelligent pleas should not be relaxed, but neither should an exercise in arid logic render those constitutional guarantees counterproductive and put in jeopardy the very human values they were meant to preserve.”

Justice Brennan, along with Justices Douglas and Marshall, dissented. Writing for that dissent, Justice Brennan suggested that denial of guilty should be “a relevant factor in determining whether the plea was voluntarily and intelligently made.”

In Iowa, Alford pleas lacking an admission of guilt are allowable but the Supreme Court has made clear that the district court must be satisfied that there is otherwise a factual basis to the guilty plea, just as if the Defendant had admitted guilt.

In State v. Schminkey, the Iowa Supreme Court held that:

“The district court may not accept a guilty plea without first determining that the plea has a factual basis.   See Iowa R.Crim. P. 8(2)(b);  State v. Burtlow, 299 N.W.2d 665, 668 (Iowa 1980).   This requirement exists even where the plea is an Alford plea.”

In the Alford decision, a police officer and two witnesses testified at the plea taking, thus establishing a factual basis for the Defendant’s guilt even in the absence of his own admission. In Iowa, generally speaking, witnesses may but often do not testify at plea takings. The judge must, however, be satisfied that there is some “factual basis” to the claims.

Asking the Defendant to acquiesce to a factual basis as set forth in the Minutes of Testimony, the document offered by the prosecution to support the filing of the criminal indictment, or, trial information, often serves as a factual basis for a plea taking even when the Defendant makes an admission.

However, if the minutes are lacking, the Court must otherwise find a factual basis exists.

As Justice White noted in the Alford decision, “The standard was and remains whether the plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a crime in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Waterloo, Linn, Johnson, Black Hawk, or other Iowa community or county, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC at or 319-389-1889. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information to an lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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