The plea deal is an essential part of the American criminal justice system. In the majority of cases in state criminal courts, the defense and the prosecution decide not to go to trial and, instead, to compromise with a plea agreement. The defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest (nolo contendere in Latin) to a crime in exchange for the prosecution dropping some of the charges, reducing the crime charged to a lesser crime, and/or agreeing to a certain sentence. If the defendant pleads guilty, the law requires that he do so honestly. Often, the defendant must state, under oath and in open court, what he did that constituted a crime – for example, that he struck or shot another person, stole money from his employer’s petty cash, or drove drunk. The law does not permit the defendant to lie about his guilt just to get a plea deal.
That said, even if you are charged with a crime you didn’t commit, in some circumstances a plea deal may seem like the best option. Perhaps the prosecution has enough evidence that leads you and/or your attorney to worry that a trial could easily result in a guilty verdict, despite your innocence. Perhaps the prosecution has a believable witness who is mistaken and will identify you as the offender. Can you make a plea deal even though you cannot state truthfully that you committed the crime? Fortunately, there are alternative plea arrangements available that will allow you to take advantage of a plea agreement without lying to the court.
One option available to a defendant who cannot admit guilt is to negotiate an agreement that allows the defendant to plead “no contest” instead of “guilty.” If you plead “no contest,” you do not admit guilt or claim you are innocent. You simply acknowledge that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove you committed a crime and you agree not to contest the charges.
You're not simply entitled to enter such a plea, however. The prosecution must agree to a “no contest” plea, the judge must allow it, and the defendant must have access to competent legal advice about the consequences of the plea.
Another option available to a defendant who cannot admit guilt is an Alford plea. When a defendant enters an Alfordplea, he pleads guilty but asserts his innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution likely can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When the parties tell the judge that a plea is an Alford plea, they are notifying the court that the defendant wishes to plead guilty even though he claims he is innocent and that he will not state that he committed any criminal acts.
This plea arose out of a death penalty case in North Carolina in 1963. Henry Alford was charged with first degree murder. If convicted, he automatically would be sentenced to death. The trial court permitted Alford to plead guilty to second degree murder while insisting on his innocence and without admitting that he killed the victim, because Alford and his lawyer acknowledged that the prosecution likely would be able to get a guilty verdict at trial.
An Alford plea is not as common as a “no contest” plea but it is still available to defendants and used in a small percentage of criminal cases. Like a “no contest” plea, an Alford plea is only permissible if the prosecutor agrees, the judge allows it, and the defendant has access to competent legal advice about the consequences of entering into the plea deal and pleading guilty.
Because the prosecutor must agree to an Alford or “no contest” plea before you can use it, the defense must negotiate this issue in advance. The defense first must make sure that the prosecutor will agree to the alternative plea. In felony cases, the parties often sign a written plea agreement before going to court. The fact that the defendant will be pleading “no contest” or entering an Alford plea should be included in the written agreement. If it is not in the agreement and, at court, the defense announces the defendant wishes to plead differently, the prosecutor does not have to agree and the plea deal could fall apart.
In some cases, it is important to the judge, the victim, and/or the prosecutor that the defendant admits to committing the criminal act. Ultimately, if the prosecutor will not agree or the judge will not permit the defendant to plead to a crime without admitting guilt, the defendant will not be permitted to enter an alternative plea.
If you are charged with a crime you did not commit, you should consult with an attorney immediately. A knowledgeable and experienced attorney can advise you on your options, represent you at trial, or possibly negotiate a plea agreement that will not require you to admit guilt.