Alford Plea: How a 19 Year-Old Teen Gets Community Service for Sexual Assault

A 19-year old Idaho teen that was accused of kicking a coat hanger up the rectum of a mentally disabled teammate plead guilty and received a mere sentence of 300 hours of community service.  Former high school football player, John R.K. Howard, was originally charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, but the case was later found not to be about sexual assault and the teen was ultimately sentenced on a felony injury to a child charge.

According to the victim’s account of what happened, one of his friends motioned him over for a hug whereupon another teammate shoved a coat hanger into his body, after which Howard kicked the hanger pushing it further into his body.  Howard admitted he kicked the victim, but denied that he intentionally kicked the hanger itself; in fact, his attorney argued Howard may not have even known about the hanger.

The case caused quite an uproar in the small town of Dietrich, Idaho.  The victim’s family argued the victim had been continually bullied, while those in support of Howard and the other students charged urged the victim had fabricated the whole incident at the request of his parents for the sake of the financial gain that would come out of a lawsuit.  Despite the murky facts the case presents, Howard chose to plead guilty under an Alford Plea.

alford plea“I’m Guilty, But Not Really”

When a defendant enters a guilty plea, they’re admitting their guilt to the crime, usually as a trade-off for a reduced charge and a lesser sentence.  An Alford Plea gives the defendant the benefit of the lesser sentence without admitting guilt—the defendant gets to maintain his or her innocence for the crime.

Judges do have discretion to either accept or reject a plea, so maintaining innocence isn’t normally something that you would see when entering a guilty plea.  The Alford plea originated from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a judge can accept a guilty plea from a defendant that doesn’t really want to admit guilt; this allows the defendant to get the benefit of the bargained-for sentence even though they’re wavering on actual guilt.  When entering this kind of plea, Judges will ensure:

  • Whether the defendant is making a smart decision. Does the defendant understand what the plea means?  Does the defendant understand the rights they’re giving up?  Does the defendant understand that, even though they’re maintaining their innocence, they’ll still be considered (and treated as) guilty?  It will still be a criminal record just the same.
  • Is there enough evidence against the defendant for a guilty verdict at trial? You can’t plead guilty under an Alford Plea if there isn’t enough proof you’ve committed the crime.

Alford Plea Benefits Both Sides

Under an Alford Plea, a defendant admits that the evidence against them would likely persuade a judge or jury to find a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but maintains his or her innocence.  That doesn’t exactly sound like a real guilty plea then, so why are they even allowed?

In the case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court that led to the development of the Alford Plea, at the defendant’s guilty plea hearing he testified that he didn’t commit the crime he was charged with, but was pleading guilty to avoid getting a death penalty sentence.  That’s the plus side to any guilty plea—pleading guilty to a lesser crime to avoid a heavier sentence.  For the state, it’s about judicial efficiency, but for a defendant it’s about not gambling the odds.

Not every state allows Alford Pleas and in those states a defendant would have to plead “not guilty” to maintain their innocence.  For all intents and purposes, this costs time and money because it leads to a lengthy trial.  Plea deals keep cases off the docket, ensure time served, and give defendants the benefit of a lesser sentence.

Teen Could Get Conviction Dismissed

The evidence against Howard must have been damning for him to take the plea, but it paid off for him because he won’t have to serve any jail time.  The sentenced Howard to 300 hours of community service, but granted a withheld judgment.  Under Idaho law, judgments can be withheld to get them off the docket.  The benefit of this kind of judgment is that it gives the defendant a chance to have his record cleared later.

Here’s how it typically works—a defendant pleads guilty, is granted a withheld judgment, the case is closed, and, if the defendant abides by the term of their guilty plea, the conviction gets dismissed.  Think of it like putting your case on hold—a probationary period if you will.  If you behave, don’t get in any more trouble, and follow the terms of your guilty plea agreement with the state, then your case gets dismissed at the end of the probationary period.

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