How is an Alford plea different from a “no contest” plea?

By Jonathan Blecher on July 28, 2022

Thanks to renewed interest in the case against author Michael Peterson, whose conviction for the murder of his wife was overturned, the concept of an “Alford Plea” has once again entered the public consciousness.

But what exactly is an Alford plea? How does it differ from pleading “nolo contendere” (“no contest”) in court?

The end results are similar, but there’s one critical difference

The practical effect of both an Alford plea and a “no contest” plea are essentially the same from the court’s standpoint: The defendant is adjudicated guilty of their charges and will receive whatever sentence the court sees fit. (Very often, this sentence is hammered out between the prosecution and the defense well in advance and is usually accepted by the judge.)

However, there’s one major distinction between the two:

  • A defendant who pleads “no contest” is not admitting their guilt, but they’re also not denying it either.
  • A defendant who takes an Alford plea is actually stating that they are wholly innocent of the charges but acknowledging the reality that the prosecution could quite possibly convict them at trial with the evidence at hand.

Why does this matter? In both cases, these pleas are often used when the defendant is still also facing civil charges related to the criminal case. A guilty plea in their criminal case can be used against the defendant when they’re later brought into civil court. Alford pleas and no contest pleas cannot.

Why bother with an Alford plea, then? For many defendants, it’s a matter of integrity. They simply cannot bring themselves to swear in court that they are guilty of a crime they didn’t commit. For others, it’s a matter of practicality: They cannot afford (emotionally, financially or both) to keep fighting their case, and they don’t want to risk a conviction and lengthy prison sentence.

If you’re facing serious criminal charges, it’s worth learning as much as you can about all of your potential defense options.

Back To Blog