North Carolina v. Alford

PETITIONER: North Carolina
RESPONDENT: Henry C. Alford
LOCATION: Superior Court of Forsythe County

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 400 US 25 (1970)
ARGUED: Nov 17, 1969
REARGUED: Oct 14, 1970
DECIDED: Nov 23, 1970
GRANTED: Apr 07, 1969

Doris R. Bray - for the appellee
Jacob L. Safron - for the appellant

Facts of the case

North Carolina charged Henry Alford with first-degree murder. That charge carried a possible sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty. Alford agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a second-degree murder conviction. When Alford took the stand, he testified that he was innocent and pled guilty to avoid the death penalty. The judge ensured that Alford made his decision freely after consulting counsel. Alford maintained his guilty plea, and after receiving evidence of Alford’s extensive criminal history, the judge sentenced Alford to the maximum 30-year sentence.

After unsuccessfully attempting to obtain post-conviction relief, Alford petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina denied relief on the grounds that Alford’s guilty plea was entirely voluntary. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the plea was involuntary because its primary motivation was the fear of death.


Is a guilty plea invalid where the defendant maintains his innocence and testifies that the plea is only to avoid the death penalty?

Media for North Carolina v. Alford

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 17, 1969 in North Carolina v. Alford

Warren E. Burger:

Number 15, North Carolina against Alford.

Mr. Safron, you may proceed whenever you’re ready.

Jacob L. Safron:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This matter is before this Court upon direct appeal on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on the opinion of that court from the divided opinion.

Chief Justice Haynesworth dissenting holding that statutory scheme for the imposition of capital punishment in North Carolina in light of the opinion of this Court in United States v. Jackson is unconstitutional.

Therefore, the issue before this Court today is the import and impact of the Jackson opinion upon the laws of the State of North Carolina, the laws of our sister states and of the federal judiciary.

On the evening of November 22, 1963, Nathaniel Young, a Negro gentleman who operated a house that could best be described as a party house in the City of Winston-Salem, North Carolina opened -- responded to a knock at the door, opened the door slightly and was cut down by a shotgun blast.

Earlier that evening, petitioner or actually the appellee in this case Henry C. Alford, had come to that house.

Henry Alford also is Negro.

He had been accompanied by a white girl.

They purchased several drinks of liquor by the drink which under North Carolina Prohibition Board -- Prohibition Laws is not legal.

And then Henry Alford gave Nathaniel Young his last dollar to rent a room in that house.

Alford was accompanied by his girlfriend into that room and after several minutes, they left because Henry Alford no longer had any money.

He demanded that this young lady leave with him.

Daniel Young, the proprietor of this house said, “She could stay here if she wishes.”

An argument ensued and Henry Alford run off with the lady’s coat being chased by Nathaniel Young and someone else.

Approximately, 15 to 20 minutes later, there was a knock at the door and Nathaniel Young was cut down by a shotgun blast.

Alford was indicted by the grand jury of the White County Superior court for murder in the first degree.

Counsel was appointed. Counsel thoroughly investigated the case.

Counsel contacted every witness named to him by Henry Alford except one by name of Jack who cannot be found.

In each case, the testimony of Alford’s purported witnesses was contrary to Alford’s allegations as to their testimony.

Upon the call of the case, Alford through counsel entered a plea of guilty to murder in the second degree which under North Carolina Law carries a maximum punishment of 30 years imprisonment.

He did not plead guilty to the capital offense which under the law been in state would have carried a life sentence.

He pled guilty to second-degree murder.

The State then placed on the stand.

The detective E. I. Weatherman --

Let me get that right statement.

Do you say the first-degree murder carried on a life sentence?

Jacob L. Safron:

Upon a plea of guilty.

Oh, upon a plea of guilty.