Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fredericksburg Virginia Editorial: What are all these Alford pleas about?

Every reader here knows what “all the Alford Pleas are about”! (See below editorial)

In Virginia with sexual assault, sexual battery and many other sex crimes…. the accusation IS the EVIDENCE. 

Virginia Code was rewritten years ago (Rape Shield Laws) and the words no corroboration is required was added, to lower the burden of proof that the prosecution must provide. And then years after that Virginia Code has been re-written and re-written again raising the penalty for these crimes to a prison sentence of Life Plus 20 years. LIFE Plus 20 in a State with NO Parole! Mandatory Minimums like these tie the judges/juries hands if the case actually goes to trial and if a finding of guilt is handed down there can be no wiggle-room, it’s “Life Plus 20”. 

More than 94% of criminal charges/convictions NEVER make it to trial in Virginia; they are settled with a plea deal. 

Not because the person charged is guilty but because they are facing charges that do NOT require the Prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and a mandatory minimum hangs over their head.

Going to trial in America for a sex crime has actually turned into a no-win-situation for the average person.

Unless you can afford a $100,000+ attorney who will actually invest the time and effort to prove your innocence because the Prosecution isn’t required to prove your guilt you are forced to take any offer that is given no matter how unjust it is. 

And if you don’t take “the deal” offered I know for a fact that some Commonwealth Attorneys threaten to release the mug shot, name, home address and charges of the Virginian facing sex crimes to the local evening news broadcast……What else does an innocent person who doesn’t have $100,000+ for a competent defense do?

They take the Alford plea!!!!!!!!!! Instead of facing the court-of-public-opinion that will most likely result in the loss of their job and possibly their home all while they attempt to defend themselves (and their family) against a crime that “requires no corroboration” you can’t do that without income and a home. 

94% of criminal convictions in the Commonwealth end with a plea deal; it’s a win-win for the State and the Prosecutors resume, but not for our citizens or for justice! 

Mary Devoy

Editorial: What are all these Alford pleas about? April 1, 2015

Every week somewhere in the Fredericksburg area, a defendant pleads guilty in a criminal court while at the same time claiming to be innocent.

It’s called an Alford plea, and it’s become routine in the courts of Virginia. News reports about such pleas are usually accompanied by an almost boilerplate explanation that the accused does not admit guilt, but acknowledges there is sufficient evidence to be convicted.

How did this seemingly contradictory legal procedure come to be and is it beneficial for our criminal justice system?

Henry Alford was charged in 1963 in Forsyth County, N.C., with first-degree murder in a fatal shooting. 

His attorney felt the evidence against him was strong, but Alford didn’t want to plead guilty to first-degree because that carried a possible death penalty. 

The defendant agreed to plead to second-degree. But in court he proclaimed that he actually was innocent and pleaded to the lesser charge to avoid the death penalty. 

Alford was sentenced to 30 years in prison. But he then appealed and a federal appeals court determined the plea was involuntary because it was motivated by fear of the death sentence. 

The appeals court then vacated the trial court verdict. 

It was next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1970, on a 6–3 vote, reversed the appeals court ruling and said there is no constitutional prohibition to pleading guilty while claiming innocence. 

Justice Byron White wrote the majority opinion and said that as long as the defendant is of sound mind, has a competent lawyer and the judge determines that there is sufficient evidence of guilt, then the plea can be accepted. 

In Virginia, such pleas come in myriad cases, from petty larceny to murder. It’s often used successfully in sex offenses and child abuse cases. In those cases, the state gets a conviction and the victim doesn’t have to testify. Sometimes there is an agreement on a sentence as well. 

One prosecutor estimates that about a fourth of all guilty pleas are Alford cases. 

Such a plea was used in the high-profile case involving Del. Joe Morrissey, a Henrico lawyer facing felonies involving allegations of a sexual relationship with a minor. 

Special prosecutor Bill Neely of Spotsylvania County accepted an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge and Morrissey served a jail sentence. 

The procedure serves a practical legal purpose. 

The state gets the conviction it wants, and the defendant can still maintain his or her innocence.