In November, the New York Times published an article that examined the systemic pressures that push innocent people in prison to enter Alford pleas in spite of the hefty consequences of having criminal charges lingering on their records. Today, the Times followed up that article with an editorial by Megan Rose, a reporter for ProPublica, in which she discusses how the prevalence of the Alford plea system significantly compromises justice.
Rose uses the case of Innocence Project client Leroy Harris in Connecticut to illustrate this unfortunate phenomenon. She writes:
No one appears to have tracked how often prosecutors use Alford pleas in cases where exculpatory evidence has surfaced that provides inmates with powerful ammunition to contest their guilt.
Still, it seems everywhere I go I hear about another Alford plea. Recently, it was Leroy Harris, who had spent almost 30 years in jail on a rape conviction that came into question because of DNA testing and revelations of serious prosecutorial misconduct in Connecticut….
… In the nearly two dozen cases I’ve investigated, seemingly insurmountable holes were blown in prosecution cases by recanting witnesses, newly discovered alibi records, debunked forensics or, most damning of all, DNA results that didn’t match the defendant.
In the interest of justice, prosecutors should have acknowledged that they couldn’t meet their burden of proof and cleared those inmates. Instead, they offered Alford pleas.
Quite alarmingly, as Rose underscores, cases like Mr. Harris’ are far from rare.
“These situations play out with numbing consistency around the country,” she writes.
In conclusion, Rose states that Alford pleas “defy justice” when it comes to cases of wrongful conviction. Not only do they obstruct innocent people from securing total justice, but they prevent prosecutors from being held accountable for sending the wrong people to prison and for failing to identify the people who actually committed the crimes.
“What’s striking about these cases is that the real culprit in the crime is often forgotten,” writes Rose.