It was 2021, and Leroy Spruill and Wallace Jones had each served 26 years of a life sentence for the 1993 murder of Frank Swain in Roper, N.C. Both men had always insisted they were innocent, and a state panel was set to review their case for exoneration. Just days before the hearing, the North Carolina Attorney General’s office offered them a deal that proposed an Alford plea, a unique type of plea agreement that allows defendants to plead to a crime while maintaining their claim of innocence. If the men took the deal, they would go free but would remain guilty in the eyes of the law, forced to drop their battle to prove otherwise, Courthouse News reports. Technically, an Alford plea would allow them to maintain their legal claims of innocence without risking their freedom fighting their murder convictions in a courtroom. The story of Jones and Spruill highlights the difficult choices that those who claim to be wrongfully convicted must navigate as they fight for freedom against a justice system that is often reluctant to admit when it’s made a mistake.
By offering freedom to prisoners in exchange for halting a legitimate inquiry into whether they’ve been incorrectly incarcerated, such post-conviction plea deals “allows the state to avoid taking responsibility, to avoid public outcry, to avoid embarrassment [and] to avoid civil suit,” said Christine Mumma, the founder of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, who served as Spruill and Jones’ attorney. Post-conviction plea deals like this one offer potentially wrongfully convicted prisoners a chance to win back their freedom without risking a new legal process. They also come with drawbacks, said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who first coined the term “dark plea.” Once someone is charged and incarcerated, they no longer have a presumption of innocence. Options for appeal are often limited. Even in the presence of new evidence, securing post-conviction relief is difficult and can take years. That gives prosecutors immense leverage over vulnerable inmates, as they can use the prospect of freedom to halt efforts to uncover past injustices. Donnelly advocates for reform of the post-conviction hearing process, including calling for a ban on such plea deals, at least until after convicts have a chance for a new trial.