The "Alford Plea": how to make sure victims of wrongful conviction never get justice.

Megan Rose, a reporter for ProPublica, had a great op-ed in the New York Times detailing how prosecutors use the “Alford Plea” to insure that people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes – and who have often been incarcerated for decades – never get full justice.

An Alford plea typically comes into play after facts or evidence come up after a conviction that clearly cast significant doubt on the integrity of that conviction. Those facts often involve prosecutorial or police misconduct, such as burying exculpatory evidence. When that evidence comes to light, prosecutors do not necessarily agree to simply release the accused from prison. Instead, they insist they will retry the case – unless the accused agrees to enter an Alford plea. An Alford plea in effect, acknowledges that there is evidence which suggests guilt – but the defendant maintains innocence. By doing so, the accused is allowed to immediately leave prison. But when he does, he remains convicted of the crime.

Rose writes how prosecutors insist on Alford pleas because somehow, someway, they just know the accused is guilty. And having been burned by the legal system once, the victim is likely in no particular hurry to take his/her chances with another trial. A second trial means months of additional immersion in a legal system that has already failed them. What rational human wants to jump back into that?

And Alford pleas, notes Rose, often bar the wrongfully convicted from bringing civil lawsuits. So in order to gain immediate freedom, victims have to forego their rights to make those who wrongfully imprisoned them pay money damages. In order to sue, victims have to remain in prison, while their lawyers press for a new trial Those victims who chose immediate freedom can seek pardons but that process, as noted by Rose, is heavily stacked against them.

Rose proposes that once the conviction is called into question, prosecutors are immediately taken out of the equation and the matter turned over to independent commissions or Conviction Integrity Units. A sensible suggestion, but one that prosecutors would never contemplate.

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