Alford Plea Entered In Highland Trial

On Tuesday September 25th, in Highland County Court proceedings, Robert Marshall Cornelius, age 15, entered an Alford plea in the case of the shooting death of his 76 year old paternal grandmother Ruth Knave in McDowell in September of last year. The plea was the result of a deal between defense and prosecution which included amending the original charge of first degree murder to second degree murder.

What exactly is an Alford plea?

According to Wikipedia, it “ is a guilty plea in criminal court, whereby a defendant in a criminal case does not admit to the criminal act and asserts innocence. In entering an Alford plea, the defendant admits that the evidence presented by the prosecution would be likely to persuade a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Alford guilty plea is named after the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina v. Alford from 1970. Henry Alford had been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in 1963. He maintained that he was innocent, but the evidence against him appeared to be strong. The defense struck a deal with the prosecution: Alford would plead guilty to second-degree murder. Alford told the judge, under oath, that he didn’t commit the crime. He said he was pleading guilty because of the threat of the death penalty. The judge ruled that the defendant had been adequately advised by his defense lawyer and, having also heard evidence of Alford’s guilt, accepted the plea and imposed the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

In Tuesday’s proceedings, after the motion was made to amend the charges by the prosecution, Judge John E. Wetsel Jr. questioned the defendant at length on whether he had received adequate counsel on his options, whether he understood the implications and consequences of entering the plea, and that it was being entered voluntarily, without coercion. Satisfied with the answers, the judge then heard testimony from special prosecutor Charles Simmons on the evidence which would have been presented had the trial moved forward. This included:

– inconsistent stories given to authorities at the Richmond International Airport, where the defendant was assumed to be a runaway juvenile after inquiring on how to buy a plane ticket.

– a rifle and shell casing found near a shed on the property where the crime occurred, and evidence that the house window that the bullet passed through was the only portion of the house visible through a narrow gap in the shed walls;

– cash totaling $1,277 and close to $60.00 in change, along with credit cards and his passport, among the defendant’s belongings at the airport;

– and notes, found both at the crime scene and in the belongings of the defendant at the airport, which alluded to a kidnapping scenario.

The judge ruled that the evidence from the Commonwealth was substantial and would have been enough to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt, and accepted the defendant’s guilty plea, pursuant to North Carolina vs. Alford, for second degree murder.

The sentence for the crime can range from 5 to 40 years. Following a social background and pre-sentencing report, the date of sentencing is set for December 20th.

We thank Wikipedia and for background material for this story.

Story By

Scott Smith

Scott Smith is the General Manager for Allegheny Mountain Radio and Station Coordinator and News Reporter for WVLS. Scott’s family has deep roots in Highland County. While he did not grow up here, he spent as much time as possible on the family farm, and eventually moved to Highland to continue the tradition, which he still pursues with his cousin. Unfortunately, farming doesn’t pay all the bills, so he has previously taken other jobs to support his farming hobby, including pressman/writer for The Recorder, and Ag Projects Coordinator for The Highland Center. He lives in Hightown with wife Michelle and son Ethan. In his spare time, he wishes he had more spare time, especially to ride his prized Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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