Guilty pleas have become part and parcel of our criminal justice system. With more and more people being arrested and charged and fewer judges and court staff to handle them, prosecutors are more willing to accept plea agreements. This can even extend to what is known as a “best interest” plea, or Alford plea. This is a special kind of guilty plea in which the accused pleads guilty but does not admit guilt. A “best interest” plea is sometimes advised when the accused proclaims innocence, however the weight of the evidence and the risks receiving a heavier sentence at trial mean that it is in the best interest of the defendant to plead guilty. However, in a recent Etowah County, Alabama case, one defendant’s best interest plea went horribly wrong.
Martin McBurnett made a best interest plea to possession of marijuana, rape, sodomy, sexual abuse of a child less than 12 years old, and production of pornographic material depicting a minor. According to McBurnett, prior to making his plea agreement he was not informed what the range of punishment for the crimes was, whether the sentences would be served consecutively or concurrently, or whether he would be eligible for parole. He was sentenced to four life sentences and an additional 30 years in jail.
McBurnett was understandably not happy with his sentence. He filed a petition under Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure for post-conviction relief asking to withdraw his plea. The trial court denied his petition on all counts except for the possession of marijuana charge. McBurnett appealed.
On appeal, McBurnett argued that he should have been informed of the consequences of his plea. The Court of Criminal Appeals did not give any credit to the arguments about the length of the sentences or whether they would be concurrent or consecutive. The court stated that because he had not raised those issues in his initial petition, they would not consider them on appeal.
McBurnett also argued that he should have been informed before making his best interest plea that the offenses were not eligible for parole. The Court of Criminal Appeals gave this argument much more weight. The State argued that McBurnett did not have to be advised of not being eligible for parole because parole is not a right, but within the discretion of the Board of Pardon and Parole. The court disagreed. Because that would make his sentence a guarantee of life imprisonment with parole, he had a right to be informed. The court reversed the decision and remanded for the trial court to allow McBurnett to withdraw his guilty plea if he chose to do so.
I think you should never enter into a guilty plea, be it a best interest plea or not, unless you fully understand the consequences. Being stuck in a bad situation because the consequences of your decision were not explained to you is regrettable, and you deserve an experienced attorney to guide you through the process. If you are involved in a criminal case in Alabama, Joseph A. Ingram of INGRAM LAW LLC can help you find the best option for your case. Contact us at 205-335-2640 for a free consultation. Get Relief – Get Results.