July 5, 2006
You've got a client charged with two counts of robbery, a kidnapping, and a forgery thrown in for good measure. You work out a sweetheart deal on the day of trial -- a felony four robbery and a misdemeanor forgery. Your client balks, claiming he's innocent, but you take him back in the holding cell and teach him some basic arithmetic, namely, that ten or fifteen years is a lot longer than six months, and it's even longer when you have to shower with a bunch of guys who have more tattoos than teeth.
He comes to his senses, you go back out in front of the judge, and things are going swimmingly until your client pulls the same "but I didn't do it" routine. At which point the judge announces, "I don't accept pleas from people that don't think they did anything wrong," refuses to accept the plea, and calls in the jury. The story has a happy ending, because you get to tell your client, "I told you so": the jury hangs on the kidnapping, but convicts on the other counts, and your client becomes a guest of Casa Taft for the next several years.
Well, okay, it wasn't such a happy ending for him.
But it did become one in the court of appeals, because the 10th District reverses the conviction, finding that the trial court abused its discretion in not accepting the plea. Under North Carolina v. Alford, a court can accept a guilty plea from a defendant despite a protestation of innocence; Alford reasoned, correctly, that sometimes even an innocent man can rationally decide to plead guilty to a crime in order to minimize the penalty he might receive. Alford says that the court isn't required to accept the plea -- in fact, it's not required to accept any plea -- but the appellate lawyer here made the excellent argument that the court abused its discretion by refusing to exercise it -- in other words, by imposing a blanket rule of not accepting Alford pleas.
There are a number of cases which have upheld the trial court's refusal to accept an Alford plea, including one from our county -- State v. Jones, 1994 Ohio App. LEXIS 590. Those cases, however, don't engage in the analysis of abusing discretion by refusing to exercise it, so the 10th District's decision offers an opportunity for some creative lawyering.