Date of Degree

9-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Saul Kassin

Committee Members

Emily Haney-Caron

Steven Penrod

Allison Redlich

Tina Zottoli

Subject Categories

Law and Psychology | Social Psychology

Keywords

plea bargaining, Alford plea, social psychology, psychology and law

Abstract

The Alford plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence while accepting a plea. Although this plea is more prevalent than jury trials, it is largely unknown to both lay people and researchers (Redlich & Özdoğru, 2009). Legal scholars have argued that the Alford plea may present an undue influence on innocent defendants who may not otherwise accept a plea, while other assert that the Alford plea is a beneficial alternative for defendants who want to preserve their reputation (Ronis, 2009; Ward, 2004). However, no research to date has explored either of these assumptions.

The goals of the current research were to fill this gap and explore two important aspects of the Alford plea: (1) whether the opportunity to maintain innocence through an Alford plea increases the rate of innocent defendants pleading guilty, and (2) how Alford defendants are perceived by observers. To accomplish these goals, I conducted five studies. In the first two studies, actors were either asked to imagine being accused of cheating on an experimental task or being accused of involuntary manslaughter. Participants were then randomly assigned to be either guilty or innocent of the wrongdoing and were subsequently offered either a traditional plea that required them to admit guilt, or an Alford plea that enabled them to proclaim innocence in a written statement. They were then asked to provide their plea decision along with their reasons for accepting or rejecting. In three subsequent studies, I explored how observers viewed Alford defendants and their decision. Participants read about an individual being accused of cheating or involuntary manslaughter, and then offered a traditional plea or an Alford plea. The individual then presented his plea decision and participants provided their perceptions of the individuals’ guilt, as well as his decision and character.

In the actor studies, I found that guilty participants were significantly more likely to accept a plea compared to innocent participants. In contrast with predictions, Study 1 revealed that innocent Alford defendants were less likely to plea than other participants. However, a large part of innocent defendants who accepted cited the opportunity to maintain innocence as a reason for their plea decision. While the observer studies revealed little to no effect of the Alford plea on participants’ guilt perceptions, I found that participants consistently viewed the Alford defendant in a more negative light, rating him as less remorseful than other defendants. The implications of the results are discussed, particularly in the light of legal scholars’ stance on the Alford plea as an advantageous alternative for defendants.

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