Spectrum of Guilt: An American Perspective

Spectrum of Guilt: An American Perspective

When one is charged with an offence and brought before the courts to stand trial for that charge under Anglo-Welsh law, one may plead, inter alia, guilty or not guilty. It is somewhat different in the United States of America. In America one may enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, no contest and, at the judge’s discretion, an Alford plea.

These alternatives demonstrate a sliding scale in terms of criminal responsbility. On one side there is the guilty plea, admitting responsibility for the alleged acts and on the other the not guilty plea, refusing responsibility for the alleged acts. Sandwiched in between full responsibility and no responsibility is a hodge podge known as a no contest plea and the Alford plea.

A no contest – nolo contendre – plea is used where the defendant neither admits nor refutes the charge against them. No contest pleas are not pleas of guilty, however, they have the same effect as a guilty plea in that the defendant agrees to serve a punishment for the actions that may or may not have taken place.

The Alford Plea originates from the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina v Alford [1]. The concept behind the plea is that the defendant accepts that there is sufficient evidence on which a conviction beyond reasonable doubt could be secured but does not admit the act and asserts their innocence. It is, however, still a guilty plea. In the words of Justice Byron White in North Carolina v Alford:

While most pleas of guilty consist of both a waiver of trial and an express admission of guilt, the latter element is not a constitutional requisite to the imposition of criminal penalty.

As a conceptual development in the common law it is fascinating. The plea exists to reduce the harshest punishment a court can levy. The courts reserve harsher punishments for cases where the defendant does not admit guilt but is found guilty after a trial. The effect of the plea is that it does not jeopardise the idea that the accused is innocent by entering a guilty plea, while the accused is still punished for an alleged act that they do not or cannot admit responsibility for. Justice Byron White further said:

An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.


Henry Alford was indicted on a charge of first degree murder in North Carolina in 1963. In North Carolina the death penalty was the automatic sentence if two prerequisites were first satisfied: (1) the defendant plead not guilty and (2) the Jury did not instead recommend life imprisonment. Had he pled guilty to first-degree murder, Alford would have had the possibility of a life sentence, but avoided the death penalty.

The defendant did not want to admit guilt. The defendant instead entered a plea of no contest, simultaneously maintaining that the key points given by the prosecution were factual. Alford instead pled guilty to a charge of second-degree murder in order to avoid a death sentence were he to have been convicted after contesting the charge of first degree murder. The trial judge ruled that Alford had been adequately apprised by his lawyer, Doris Bray, accepted Alford’s plea and sentenced him to thirty years in prison.

Alford lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court of North Carolina 1965, requesting a new trial, arguing his guilty plea was forced because he was afraid of receiving a death sentence. The court ruled the defendant had entered the guilty plea, with knowledge of what it meant, voluntarily. Alford petitioned the United States District Court of the Middle District of North Carolina for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was denied and the Supreme Court of North Carolina’s ruling was confirmed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Alford’s plea was not voluntary because it was made under fear of the death penalty.

I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn’t, they would gas me for it.

The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Supreme Court Justice Byron White wrote the opinion for the majority and ruled as had the United States Court of Appeal and the District Court of the Middle District of North Carolina that the plea was made voluntarily and should be accepted. Justice White in writing the opinion, where he was joined by Justices Hugo Black, John Harlan, Potter Stewart, Harry Blackmun and Warren Burger, said that the validity of whether the plea was intelligently entered could not be questioned because the decision to plead as Alford did was motivated by a reasonable decision to exclude the harshest penalty. Justice Byron White went on to say:

Nor can we perceive any material difference between a plea that refuses to admit commission of the criminal act and a plea containing a protestation of innocence when… a defendant intelligently concludes that his interests require entry of a guilty plea and the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt. He insisted on his plea because in his view he had absolutely nothing to gain by a trial and much to gain by pleading. Because of the overwhelming evidence against him, a trial was precisely what neither Alford nor his attorney desired.

Justice William Brennan, with whom Justices William Douglas and Thurgood Marshall joined, wrote a dissenting opinion. He wrote that, despite his dissent, the Supreme Court held in Brady v United States 397 U.S. 742 that a plea of guilty even if induced by an unconstitutional threat to subject a defendant to the risk of death was acceptable provided that the plea was entered in open court and the defendant was represented by competent counsel who was aware of the threat, albeit not of its unconstitutionality. He went onto write that the court in North Carolina v Alford makes clear that Brady applies where the effect of the unconstitutional threat was to induce a guilty plea from a defendant who was unwilling to admit guilt. In his view, however, the decision to plead guilty was not a reasonable choice as Justice White earlier opined. Justice Brennan wrote:

It is sufficient, in my view, to state that 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.

Non-murder cases

Jeff Monson is a Mixed Martial Artist from Olympia, Washington; a distinguished grappler. Monson was charged with first-degree malicious mischief and graffiti after spray-painting ‘an anarchy symbol, a peace symbol and the words “no poverty” and “no war”‘ on the large columns at the front of the Capitol building. Pictures of Monson committing the crime were printed in ESPN magazine and a Thurston County Superior Court Judge issued a warrant. Monson plead guilty to malicious mischief and entered an Alford plea for graffiti. He was sentenced in October 2009 to 90 days of work release and ordered to pay $21,894 in restitution.


It is challenging to see in what circumstances a mechanism such as the Alford plea would have originated were it not for the existence of the death penalty. Whilst the existence of the plea demonstrates issues with capital punishment such as its existence persuading accused to fraudulently plead guilty to avoid being given the death penalty when they are innocent, it also raises issues of general importance.

If an accused does not accept guilt, but is punished regardless, punishing them will not serve to deter future recividism. If the mechanism exists to preserve a reputation, then it doesn’t serve a valuable purpose and its practice should be discontinued. At its worst it blurs the lines between innocent and guilty.

The purpose of pleading is not to confuse whether you are or not responsible for the offences you are charged with. It is, arguably, to assert either full or no responsibility. Admitting no responsibility for the act and a willingness to endure a punishment an innocent person would not receive suggests that the primary reason to enter an Alford plea is to strategically play the odds.

What confidence does an Alford plea serve in the public eye? If there is a dispute over whether or not someone is innocent or guilty, a trial is the best way to ascertain whether they are guilty or not. Allowing an Alford plea raises doubt, reasonable doubt, on the way in which a criminal justice system achieves justice. If a court is willing to accept a guilty plea despite admissions of innocence then it can be concluded that the willingness to accept a guilty plea is motivated by expediency rather than an interest in justice.

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