‘The Staircase’: A Defense Attorney Explains Why Michael Peterson Took An Alford Plea

Michael Peterson has consistently maintained his innocence in the 2001 death of his wife, Kathleen. He’s told many a story-slash-lie over the years but of this detail, he has never wavered.

This crime has been analyzed by true crime junkies and told via two television series streaming now. Netflix
has its version, a 13-episode documentary series, and HBO Max has the scripted version starring Toni Collette and Colin Firth.

In 2003, Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. A judge vacated the verdict in 2011 and granted a new trial when it was revealed that there was tainted evidence and one of the prosecution’s witnesses had committed perjury. He was released from prison and remained under house arrest and was ordered to wear an ankle monitor.

During this period, Peterson and his then-attorney David Rudolf had to decide how to proceed forward. Rudolf gave his client three options: a no-contest plea, an Alford plea or a new trial.

Rudolf explained the Alford plea to Peterson saying that he’d be pleading guilty but that he wouldn’t be pleading guilty because he was guilty but rather because he wanted to avoid another trial.

Immediately, Peterson told Rudolf he didn’t want to do that because that meant that on the record he’d be guilty of killing Kathleen and he stood by his original claims of innocence.

By February 2017, while awaiting his new trial and aware of how unpredictable a jury can be, Peterson entered an Alford plea and under the terms of the deal, accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time already served. He was in his seventies and financially drained and this deal allowed him to regain his freedom.

Why would an innocent person take a plea deal? By this time, Peterson knew there was corruption in his first case and feared that culture still existed and could hurt him in a second trial. He’d lost faith in the criminal justice system.

An Alford plea is a guilty plea in criminal court whereby a defendant does not admit to committing the criminal act in which they’ve been accused and can still assert their innocence with the admission that the evidence presented by the prosecution could likely persuade a judge and/or jury to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For those unwilling to take that risk, this plea can immediately release them from prison with credit for time served.

According to Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Joshua Ritter, who was not involved in the Peterson case, deals like this are quite commonplace. “Often, a defendant may strongly maintain their innocence for several reasons, such as civil liability or simply their righteous indignation. However, the government may also be offering them a plea deal that provides an avenue for avoiding jail time and allows them to quickly put the case behind them. In such a case, I could see myself advising a client that it is in his or her best interest to accept the plea, despite their objections to the truth of the allegations against them. But I have never had a client take an Alford plea. In California, they are called pleas ‘Pursuant to People v. West,’ which is the California Supreme Court case which stands for the same proposition.”

Ritter understands both sides as he is a former Los Angeles County prosecutor who now defends the accused as a partner with Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP. He is also the host of “True Crime Daily: The Sidebar Podcast.”

He explains why a man like Peterson, who maintained his claims of innocence for 16 years, would take such a deal. “The Supreme Court has allowed for a defendant to plead to a criminal charge while still maintaining their innocence. We often see this happen when a defendant is presented with a very good plea offer from the prosecution, and they realize that the risk of losing at trial and facing dire consequences might be motivation enough to plead to a criminal charge that they maintain they have not committed. However, to ensure that innocent people are not being coerced into pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit, courts will often require a showing of a strong factual basis for the plea.”

The Alford plea, adds Ritter, allows a defendant to accept a plea deal while still maintaining their innocence. “This concept arises from a Supreme Court case decided in 1970. Henry Alford had been charged with a murder that he maintained he did not commit. However, to avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty and received a prison term. Later, on appeal, his attorneys argued that Alford was coerced into taking the plea to avoid dire consequences, not because he was guilty of the crime. The Supreme Court took up the case to allow for these circumstances. An Alford plea is beneficial because by accepting a plea deal a defendant can avoid a trial, which is no sure bet even if you are innocent. It should be noted that in Mr. Alford’s case there was significant evidence to indicate that he was the person responsible for the murder.”

Many believe Peterson is guilty of murder. Others feel he is an innocent man caught in the web of an unjust legal system. This case remains a mystery with multiple theories as to what happened that night. What do you think?

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