by Allen Brotherton

Former NC House Speaker, Rep. Jim Black, entered a guilty plea to bribery and obstruction of justice charges in a state courtroom in Raleigh last week.  After pleading guilty, Black sat and listened while an SBI investigator testified about payments by Black to former Rep. Michael Decker to buy Decker’s vote in the hotly contested 2002 speaker election.  But when given an opportunity to address the court, Black reportedly said nothing about the alleged bribery, instead stating “I clearly take full responsibility for taking the cash from the three chiropractors in violation of the federal gratuities statute and state campaign finance law,”  apparently referencing his guilty plea a few days earlier to federal charges involving those cash receipts.

What was going on here?  Why didn’t Black say he was taking full responsibility for the bribery?  Didn’t he have to as part of his plea?  The answer is that despite his guilty plea he did not, because of the way he entered the plea.  Black chose to exercise his right to avoid admitting that he committed the alleged acts by entering what is called an “Alford plea.”

Under the procedure in North Carolina courts, a criminal defendant is arraigned with the question “How do you plead to the charge of (whatever crime is alleged)?”  If the defendant pleads not guilty, then the case proceeds to trial.  However, if the defendant enters a guilty plea, the judge then proceeds to determine, either through evidence or stipulation, whether a factual basis exists to support the state’s allegations.  Assuming sufficient evidence is presented, the judge then engages in a colloquy with the defendant to establish that the defendant is pleading voluntarily and understands the charges and the import of his plea.

The judge next proceeds to determine whether the defendant, after being advised of the consequences, still wants to enter the plea.  In the normal run-of-the-mill situation, the defendant is then asked “Are you in fact guilty?”  However, when a defendant chooses to enter an Alford plea, he does not answer that question, but instead is asked “Do you now consider it to be in your best interest to plead guilty?” and “Do you understand that upon your Alford Plea you will be treated as being guilty whether or not you admit that you are in fact guilty?”  Thus, by using this alternative, a defendant may plead guilty while continuing to assert his innocence.

This sort of plea derives its name from the U.S. Supreme Court decision approving the procedure, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S.Ct. 160, 27 L.Ed.2d 162 (1970).  Mr. Alford, charged with first degree murder, entered a guilty plea to second degree murder to avoid the possibility of the death penalty while maintaining his innocence.  He later tried to avoid the plea through a federal habeas corpus proceeding, leading to Supreme Court review.  The court essentially decided that a rational innocent person may choose to take a plea bargain rather than risk a worse outcome if found guilty after a trial.

Mr. Black has reportedly told others that he is innocent but does not want to impoverish his family by paying to defend himself through possibly numerous trials on these and perhaps other charges.  And it does appear that his plea bargain includes the provision that he will not be charged with other crimes if he provides full and truthful cooperation.  However, it remains to be seen whether the government will consider his cooperation truthful if he continues to maintain his innocence in the face of what prosecutors consider to be convincing evidence to the contrary.  And, as the court’s questioning at his state plea suggest, Mr. Black will be treated by the court as guilty and sentenced accordingly, his Alford plea and protestations notwithstanding.

Allen Brotherton as well as three other attorneys with Knox Law Center,  is a resident of Lincoln County and has been representing people charged with crimes, including traffic violations, for over 19 years. He can be reached at 704-372-136 or. The firm’s website is www.knoxlawcenter.com.  Opening soon is the newest office in Denver located at Hwy 16/73- Waterside Crossing.

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