Can a Death Sentence be Predicated on an Alford Plea in Washington?

 

The Washington Supreme Court answered a resounding Yes.  In re Cross, No. 79761-7, (Sept. 26, 2013).  It is true that at common law, felony convictions (for which the penalty was usually death) could not be predicated on a no contest plea.  Commonwealth v. Shrope, 264 Pa. 246, 250, 107 A. 729 (1919).  The rule was necessary because a no contest plea could be entered without any factual support or any independent evidence that supported a finding of guilt.  A defendant could be put to death with only an accusation.

Cross argued that an Alford plea was essentially a no contest plea.  Therefore, he could not incur a death sentence predicated upon it.

The Washington Supreme Court rejected Cross’s premise that an Alford plea is identical to a no contest plea.   To the contrary, CrR 4.2(d) requires that the trial judge find the Alford plea is knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently made, and that there is a satisfactory evidentiary basis to accept the plea.   For the evidence to be satisfactory, it must be sufficient for a jury to conclude the defendant is guilty.  State v. Newton, 87 Wn.2d 363, 369-70, 552 P.2d 682 (1976).  Because of these requirements, the Alford plea alleviates the concerns created by the no contest plea.  There is no danger the defendant will be convicted of a crime for which the only evidence is a bare accusation.

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