Pleading guilty and professing innocence in the same breath is not acceptable under American jurisprudence except under very special circumstances. Plea bargaining is the way out for the defendant faced with an onerous trial and the possibility of harsher punishment or penalties. In a plea bargain the defense and the prosecution agree not to proceed with the trial and work out a mutually acceptable agreement that benefits both parties. In a plea bargain the defendant, acting through the defense attorney, agrees to plead guilty and the prosecution agrees to drop some, if not all of the charges, thereby reducing the severity of the criminal act that led to arrest and imprisonment.
The guilty plea is a serious act that is performed under oath in open court with utmost honesty, and the defendant clearly and unambiguously agrees that he committed what must be recognized as a criminal act. He would admit that he assaulted an individual or was DUI or was engaged in theft and arson or shot a person causing grievous injury or death. The admission of guilt must be an honest act and the defendant cannot lie in order to secure a lower penalty or punishment.
Even in instances where the defendant might be innocent of a crime the plea bargain could become a viable option to cut short the rigors of a prolonged trial or harsher sentencing, more so, if the defense attorney fears that the weight of evidence is overwhelming and tilted against his innocent client. There may also be witnesses that could mistakenly identify the defendant and link him to the crime, prompting the defense attorney to try the plea route.
This begs the question, is there a plea deal that allows the defendant to plead guilty while denying he committed the crime?
In the no contest plea the defendant doesn’t admit his guilt, nor does he profess innocence. He simply admits that the prosecution evidence is sufficient to prove the criminal act and the charges leveled against him, but falls short of saying he is guilty. The defendant therefore agrees not to contest these charges. It is easier said than done; the prosecution has to agree because it may take the view that the charges are too serious to ignore or they may feel that a trial could expose further crimes or misdemeanors, and ultimately the judge has to accept the no contest plea. The no contest plea is not an easy option and the defense attorney must weigh the pros and cons from every angle before recommending the plea.
In such a plea the defendant acknowledges that the evidence presented by the prosecution is likely to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and pleads guilty, but at the same time asserts that he is innocent. At no time does the defendant admit openly that he has performed criminal acts.
This plea has its origins in the famous death penalty case of Henry Alford conducted in 1963 in North Carolina. Henry Alford, the defendant, was accused of first degree murder. Conviction would definitely have invoked the death penalty. The defendant and his attorney sensed that the prosecution would be able to prove charges on the strength of the accumulated evidence and they admitted that in court. The important point was that the court permitted Alford to plead guilty to murder of the second degree, while he stated his innocence, without having admitted that he killed the victim.
Just like the no contest plea, the Alford plea has to be allowed by the prosecution and be acceptable to the judge. As in the no contest plea, a defendant needs competent legal advice on the consequences of taking such a plea.
Without the prosecution’s nod the defense cannot move such a plea, and for that very reason the issues involved need to be discussed threadbare between defense and the prosecution before moving the plea. There is no point pursuing such a plea when the prosecution is dead against it. When the charges are serious felonies, normally a document is written and signed by both parties before moving matters in open court. The facts of the plea deal will be mentioned in detail. This is basically to ensure that either party does not change course midstream and wreck the deal.
Whether it is a no contest plea or an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit that he has committed the crime. For various reason this may not be acceptable to the victim, judge or prosecution and in such a situation the judge will not allow the defendant to plead guilty without admitting he committed the crime.
It is possible that you may be charged with a crime that you are completely innocent of but the prosecution has evidence which is strongly incriminating. Denying that you committed the crime yet pleading guilty might save you from a prolonged trial and graver consequences. But as always, you need a strong and well experienced criminal defense lawyer to advice you on the pros and cons of adopting such a strategy in court, and the likelihood of convincing the prosecution and judge that your action is justified.