Tonya Bundick has been granted the right to approximately 60 separate trials on the approximately 60 charges of arson she faces arising from the fires on the Eastern Shore. She has already been found guilty of one offense of arson and one offense of conspiracy to commit arson based on her “Alford Plea.” That plea came in the midst of a trial where her boyfriend, who had already pled guilty to a series of arsons, was testifying that she participated in setting one of the fires. The Alford Plea, so named after the case of North Carolina v. Alford, allows a defendant to plead guilty while, at the same time, profess innocence. Usually there is some legal benefit flowing to the defendant under the plea arrangement. The prosecutor may benefit as well in that there is a conviction in a case where there may be evidence issues. In Alford the defendant was allowed to plead guilty to murder and avoid the risk of a death sentence. Afterward, the defendant tried to have his conviction reversed on the general theory that he only pled guilty to avoid the death sentence and, therefore, his plea was not voluntary. The Supreme Court of the United States determined that the plea, now called an Alford Plea, was proper and that Alford’s constitutional rights were not violated when the court accepted the plea.
While the Alford Plea is constitutionally proper, there is no constitutional right to an Alford Plea. In many instances the prosecutor will not agree to an Alford Plea. After all, no-one wants an innocent person to be convicted of a crime they did not commit which is what the Alford defendant is indeed contending will occur. Certainly, the victim of a crime may have a problem with the culprit claiming innocence. Also, there is considered to be some benefit to a defendant “accepting responsibility” for their wrongful conduct. In theory, only then can the defendant be rehabilitated which is an inherent factor/purpose/goal of sentencing. So there are legitimate reasons why a prosecutor’s office may not be inclined to go along with the Alford Plea but the court can accept the plea nonetheless.
The latter situation may be where the Commonwealth found itself in regard to Ms. Bundick. It is not clear what Bundick got for her plea because there is apparently no deal on sentencing and she still faces 60 or more other trials. I am sure Bundick’s counsel has his hands full and it appears his client is difficult to say the least. But, on the other hand, it would be hard to believe that there is sufficient evidence to convict her for 60 plus other offenses when it took so long to catch her. In terms of criminal sentencing, a point is reached where 5 or 10 convictions are basically the same as 60 just as an Alford Plea and a guilty plea are treated the same. In all likelihood, Ms. Bundick is going away for a long time regardless.
One last interesting twist. If all this were occurring under the federal sentencing system the other trials might be moot because Bundick’s sentence on the conviction could be enhanced for her acts in the other fires even if she were to be found not guilty at trial on all the other charges.