Megan Rose’s exhaustively researched piece in ProPublica, co-published with Vanity Fair, traced the trial, conviction, and sort-of exoneration of Fred Steese: after a judge declared him innocent of the murder he was alleged to have committed, he signed a little-known (and totally constitutional!) deal called an Alford plea. Rather than submitting to what could have been years of additional hearings to have his conviction formally set aside, the plea got him out of jail immediately — but kept the lid on the prosecutorial misconduct that put him there in the first place, and kept him on the books as a convicted felon.

Though unfamiliar even to some lawyers, the Alford plea has been around since a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case. Henry Alford, a 35-year-old black man, had said he was innocent of murder but pleaded guilty to avoid an automatic death sentence. He later appealed, claiming that his plea was made under duress, violating due process. The Supreme Court disagreed. The justices ruled that it wasn’t unconstitutional to accept a guilty plea despite protests of innocence, so as long as a defendant had intelligently made the decision and was counseled by a lawyer.

Unlike the better-known no-contest plea, in which a defendant accepts a conviction without admitting guilt, the Alford plea lets a defendant actually assert his innocence for the record. The defendant acknowledges that the state might be able to get a conviction despite his or her innocence. All but three states allow the plea, but the federal government says it should be used only in “the most unusual of circumstances.” The Alford plea is most often used in bargaining before a conviction, like a typical plea deal, and could very well be taken by guilty defendants who simply won’t own up to their crimes. How often it is offered and accepted, and by what sort of defendants, isn’t tracked. Many prominent legal scholars, such as Cornell law professor John Blume, contend that prosecutors are using the plea to quickly and quietly resolve newly challenged convictions. It’s undeniably coercive for a prosecutor to tell someone who has been in prison 5, 10, 20 years that “you don’t have to admit guilt, just sign this plea and we’ll let you go,” Blume said.

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