A Maryland woman, who earlier this year essentially pleaded guilty to six counts of child neglect, was in court again this month arguing she is not criminally responsible for her actions. In January, the woman made an Alford plea for the six counts. In exchange, the state prosecutor dropped another 31 charges.
An Alford plea, also known as a "best-interests plea," is a claim in court of neither of guilt nor innocence toward charges brought against a defendant in a criminal proceeding. If a judge accepts the plea, a trial is avoided because “the defendant accepts all the ramifications of a guilty verdict” (including punishment) without admitting he or she committed the crime. Generally, the plea is made in cases where the defendant says he or she is not guilty, but thinks they would be found guilty if the case went to trial.
With both an Alford plea and the more common nolo contendere, or “no contest” plea, a defendant “does not accept or deny responsibility for the charges but agrees to accept punishment.” A plea of no contest differs from a guilty plea and an Alford plea in that it cannot be used against the defendant in another legal action, such as a civil lawsuit.
An attorney for the 46-year-old Maryland woman is now arguing that she “could not fully understand the criminality of her actions or could not conform her actions to that of the conduct required by law due to a mental disorder or mental retardation,” as described by Maryland criminal code. The woman's attorney had her evaluated by a psychiatrist who determined she was not responsible for neglecting and abusing her children because she was seriously depressed and abused alcohol as a way to cope. However, other mental health experts and the judge deemed the woman competent.
In 2013 case before the Supreme Court of Washington State, a man argued that his own Alford plea be reversed. He had made the plea during a 2001 case in which he was accused of killing his wife and two of her three daughters. When the defendant was sentenced after pleading guilty, the judge determined it was a capital crime. That is when the man decided to challenge the judgement and the sentence in court. He contended the Alford plea was “insufficient to support capital punishment.” He asked the judges of the Supreme Court of Washington to vacate -- or void -- his sentence and give him a trial for the three homicides.
In their opinion denying the man's request, the eight judges wrote that: “In an Alford plea, the accused technically does not acknowledge guilt but concedes there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction. A judge may accept such a plea only if it is made voluntarily, competently, with an understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea, and when the judge is satisfied that there is a factual basis for the plea.”
The justices found an Alford Plea does provide adequate basis to support capital punishment and determined that in this case, making such a plea was a calculated tactic to avoid “having all the gruesome details of the murders presented to the jurors at the guilt phase and preserved his ability to argue at the penalty phase of the trial that he killed the three women without premeditation or a common scheme or plan.”
Regardless of the circumstances, everyone deserves the best defense. If you have been arrested or are facing criminal charges, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.