In December of 2001, novelist Michael Peterson called 911. His wife, Kathleen, had fallen down “fifteen to twenty, I don’t know” stairs and was lying at the bottom, dead. The call would begin one of the biggest criminal trials of the early 21st century, one that would be surrounded by media attention—and immortalized and fictionalized in documentaries, movies, and episodes of TV series.
In 2003, Peterson was found guilty of his wife’s murder. After several appeals, he was granted a retrial in 2017, where he entered what is known as an “Alford plea”—in essence, a guilty plea that does not admit to any guilt. He was sentenced to time served, and released from prison. A strange end to what had already become a notorious case. In the years since, even more films and TV shows have drawn from Peterson’s story, including the 2022 HBO Max mini-series The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette.
But just what is an Alford plea, and what does it really mean that Michael Peterson ultimately used it in his retrial?
What is the Alford Plea?
To answer that question, we have to go all the way back to 1970 and the Supreme Court case of North Carolina v. Alford. Back in 1963, Henry Alford had been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the state of North Carolina—where the penalty for such a crime could include death, assuming the defendant pleaded not guilty.
As a result, according to Alford, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge—second-degree murder—in order to avoid the possibility of receiving the death penalty in a jury trial. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but he appealed the case on the grounds that he had only entered the plea out of fear for his life. “I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn’t, they would gas me for it,” as he put it in one of his appeals.
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The case eventually made its way all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the majority opinion ruled that the defendant could plead guilty even when he maintained his innocence, “when he concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly indicates guilt.” Which is another way of saying that they upheld Alford’s initial guilty plea, claiming that he entered into it having weighed all the possible consequences and having been informed by a competent lawyer, and that there was sufficient evidence for his guilt to be presumed, even while he continued to deny it.
Such was the beginning of the doctrine we now call the Alford plea. This type of guilty plea is now admissible in 47 states as well as most federal courts, not including the states of Indiana, Michigan, or New Jersey, or in United States Armed Forces trials.
Over the years since it was first used, more concrete definitions of the plea have developed, though most follow more-or-less the structure laid out in the 2008 book Criminal Procedure, which describes it as “a plea of guilty containing a protestation of innocence.” Webster’s New World Law Dictionary, for example, defines the plea as, “A guilty plea entered as part of a plea bargain by a criminal defendant who denies committing the crime or who does not actually admit his guilt. In federal courts, such plea may be accepted as long as there is evidence that the defendant is actually guilty.”
This last note is an important part of the Alford doctrine, preventing people from pleading guilty to crimes that they emphatically did not commit – a phenomenon that is more common than you might imagine. The definition offered under the Yale University Press book Gender, Crime, and Punishment highlights the other important element of an Alford plea: “Under the Alford doctrine, a defendant does not admit guilt but admits that the state has sufficient evidence to find him or her guilty, should the case go to trial.”
Essentially, for a defendant to make an Alford plea, they are saying, “I’m not guilty, but you’re definitely going to find me guilty anyway, so for my own good, I’m taking a plea bargain.” And in order for the court to accept it, they need to be right about the “find me guilty anyway” part.
Such pleas are now commonly used, though most are not in trials as high profile as that of Michael Peterson. The United States Department of Justice has estimated that around 17% of inmates tried in state courts, and 5% of those tried in federal ones, submitted either an Alford plea or a similar plea of “no contest.” According to the Department of Justice, “This difference reflects the relative readiness of State courts, compared to Federal courts, to accept an alternative plea.” With around 2 million people in jails and prisons across the United States, that’s potentially more than 300,000 Alford plea cases.
The repercussions of these plea bargains go beyond the defendants entering into them. While Stephanos Bibas writes in the Cornell Law Review that most scholars “praise these pleas as efficient, constitutional means of resolving cases,” he argues that the Alford doctrine is “unwise and should be abolished.” His reasoning? That such pleas “undermine key values served by admissions of guilt in open court,” including eroding “public confidence in accuracy and fairness,” by “creating the perception that innocent defendants are being pressured into pleading guilty.” Moreover, he says, “they allow guilty defendants to avoid accepting responsibility for their wrongs.”
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With so many Alford pleas being entered every day, there are bound to be a few notable cases associated with this type of plea. Here are a couple of the most famous ones…
As we already mentioned, Michael Peterson is, without a doubt, the most famous example of an Alford plea in the 21st century so far. His crimes—alleged or otherwise—have been immortalized in film and television, including episodes of Forensic Files, Cold Case, The New Detectives, Trial & Error, Dateline NBC, and others. The first documentary around his initial trial was released within a year of his conviction, and has recently been dramatized as the aforementioned HBO Max series The Staircase. Peterson’s Alford plea is notable in part because it came so long after his initial conviction. More than a decade elapsed between Peterson’s 2003 conviction and his 2017 retrial, when he used the Alford plea to get out of prison after being sentenced to time served.
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West Memphis Three
In 1993, three eight-year-old boys went missing from West Memphis, Arkansas. On the following day, their mutilated bodies were discovered in a drainage ditch. By 1994, three local teenagers had been arrested and found guilty of their murders, though numerous allegations of corruption and mishandling plagued the case. Evidence was regarded as shaky at best, while police were accused of intimidating witnesses, and leaking testimony to the press to inflame the public’s suspicion that these crimes may have been Satanic in nature. Despite all this, the three teens—known together as the "West Memphis Three"—were sentenced severely, with one receiving a death sentence, while the two others were sentenced to life in prison. This led to a major public outcry over the following years, with fundraisers and media campaigns to reopen the trial as witnesses recanted their testimonies and new evidence came to light. Eventually, this led to a 2010 opportunity for the three to take a plea deal, entering an Alford plea in exchange for time served. After having served 18 years in prison, all three were finally released in 2011.