What Is An Alford Plea? The Term Plays An Important Part In ‘The Staircase’

by Casey Suglia

Netflix's newest series, The Staircase, is already proving to be a hit with viewers. True crime fans are entranced the 13-episode docu-series focusing on novelist Michael Peterson, who was reportedly accused of pushing his wife, Kathleen Peterson, down the stairs of their home, according to Refinery 29, and the trial that followed afterwards. Throughout the series, a lot of legal jargon is thrown around, including the term "Alford plea" in later episodes. After watching the series, surely some people might be wondering what exactly is an Alford plea. (Romper reached out to Michael Peterson's representatives and Netflix for additional statements.)

After Kathleen Peterson's death in 2001, Michael Peterson was brought to trial in 2003, where a jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison, according to Indy Week. But in 2017, Peterson was given a new trial when questions were reportedly brought up about how the State Bureau of Investigations handled the blood analysis in the case, according to the News & Observer. It was at this new trial where Peterson entered an Alford plea, according to the News & Observer, which allowed him to walk out of the courtroom as a free man, according to WRAL News.

Of course, some people must be wondering how entering a plea can allow someone to walk out of a courtroom, but it's not that simple, according to The Atlantic.

After the trial, Peterson reportedly spoke about how hard it was for him to take the plea, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times:

Taking the Alford plea is the most difficult thing I've done in my life — ever. And I've thought back on it — (is there) any other decision that remotely rivals it? No.

An Alford plea can also be called a "best interests plea", according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University. The Alford plea acknowledges that the "prosecution has enough evidence" to prove that the defendant is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," according to Legalzoom, and is still viewed as a guilty plea at the end of the day — even if the defendant maintains their innocence. Think of it this way: taking an Alford plea is like taking a guilty plea without the word "guilt" attached to it, as Refinery 29 explained. It's important to note that, according to The Seattle Times, Alford pleas are uncommon, comprising only 6 percent of guilty pleas in both state and federal courts.

Alford pleas are typically made by those who don't want to go trial for a number of reasons, according to NOLO. Taking an Alford plea does not mean that the accused gets to go free; the accused still must go through the sentencing process, according to CrimeFeed. Sometimes, the sentencing terms are a part of the plea deal, according to CrimeFeed. However, when the terms are not a part of the deal, they're left up to the judge. In Peterson's case, he was reportedly sentenced to 64 to 86 months in prison by the judge after taking the Alford plea, according to WRAL News. But since Peterson had previously served 89 months in prison, he was able to walk out of the court "a free man," as reported by WRAL News.


Peterson's case isn't the only high profile one involving an Alford plea. In 2011, the "West Memphis Three" — three men accused of murdering three small children in Arkansas in 1993 — were freed on an Alford plea, according to The Daily Beast, even though they had previously pled not guilty. The men were able to walk out of court that day like Peterson, because they had been sentenced to "time served" as part of their plea.

With this legal knowledge, it might be a little easier to understand everything that's happening while watching The Staircase.