“I ain’t shot no man.”
— Henry C. Alford, Dec. 10, 1963
“The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Henry C. Alford was not the most sympathetic defendant that the trial courts of North Carolina saw in 1973. Granted, it was true that no one had actually seen Alford pull the trigger. Equally, it was true that no one had seen him with the murder victim or had seen him at the murder scene. But there was no shortage of witnesses in Henry Alford’s case.
In fact, even though the case never proceeded to trial, the court heard the testimony of three witnesses at his plea hearing. To begin with, there was testimony that Alford was so angry with his victim that he had loudly announced that he was going to kill him. Another witness testified that Alford had left his home with his gun in his hand. These witnesses alone may have been enough to sink Henry Alford’s case, but nothing makes a defendant’s case as completely unwinnable like full-fledged, all-out confession does. Henry Alford had done that, too, announcing after returning with his gun that he had, in fact, killed the victim, just as he had promised to do earlier.
One would expect then that when Henry Alford was charged with murder, he would have immediately entered a plea of guilty and asked for the mercy of the court. Quite the opposite occurred. When confronted with the evidence by his attorney, Alford continued to insist that he was innocent.
Alford’s attorney made several things clear to him. First, he had been charged with first-degree murder as having caused the premeditated murder of another person. Second, the penalty in North Carolina at that time for premeditated murder was death. Third, based upon the evidence that existed, Alford was almost certain to be convicted and sentenced to death. Fortunately for Henry Alford, the State of North Carolina had offered him a plea deal. He could admit to second-degree murder and face the possibility of 30 years in prison, but avoid the death penalty. His attorney strongly recommended that he take the deal.
On Dec. 10, 1963, just two-and-a-half weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, Alford appeared in court and pled guilty to second-degree murder. The state presented a summation of its evidence, and the court turned to Alford for him to admit his guilt. Instead, Henry Alford took the stand and bluntly stated that he had not killed anyone. He told the judge, “I pleaded guilty on second-degree murder because they said there is too much evidence, but I ain’t shot no man, but I take the fault for the other man. We never had an argument in our life, and I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn’t, they would gas me for it, and that is all.”
Alford’s attorney asked him if he was entering the plea voluntarily and if he had authorized the attorney to enter the plea. “Yes, Sir,” he said. “I’m still pleading that you all got me to plead guilty. You told me to plead guilty, right. I don’t … I’m not guilty, but I plead guilty.” The court accepted his plea and gave him the maximum sentence of 30 years. Alford then appealed and said that he had only pled guilty because the possibility of the death sentence had coerced him into admitting to a crime that he did not commit.
The case reached the Supreme Court in 1969. By a vote of 6-3, the court found that Alford was not coerced into making his plea, but instead had made a conscious choice, weighed his options, and chose the option that made the most sense for him. Justice Brennan, writing for the dissenters, concluded that Alford was “so gripped by fear of the death penalty that his decision to plead guilty was not voluntary.”
Alford’s sentence of 30 years was upheld. He served 22 of those 30 years and died in prison in 1975 at the age of 57. Few know much about his case, but like Ernesto Miranda, his name will live on forever in legal lingo.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.