"I'm innocent, but you can prove me guilty." That is essentially what Venoy Overton said Monday when he entered a so-called "Alford Plea" in response to charges that he coerced his 18-year-old girlfriend to turn tricks on Pacific Highway South last summer.
The evidence against the former University of Washington point guard was more than enough to convince a jury that he made a girl he was seeing "walk the track" near a Kent gas station, sell herself for $200 a pop, and give him a cut of the cash, which he claimed he'd repay "once he made it to the NBA." According to police, there were text messages, surveillance videos, the distraught woman's confession, and his own damning statements to detectives after his arrest. He committed an ugly, boneheaded crime and got caught. That much he's willing to admit, at least in a court of law.
But he still gets to consider himself innocent because his guilty plea comes with an asterisk known as the Alford Plea. The unusual but not entirely uncommon plea gets its name from the case of Henry Alford, a North Carolina man who was charged with first-degree murder in 1963. Facing the death penalty if convicted by a jury, Alford pleaded guilty even though he steadfastly maintained his innocence. He wrote during his appeal that he felt compelled to plead guilty "because they said if I didn't, they would gas me for it." The Supreme Court eventually ruled the conviction could stand, opening the door for others to follow suit, even if their lives aren't at stake.
In exchange for his plea, the 23-year-old Overton was sentenced to 30 days in jail, which is at the low end of the standard one to three month range for his crime. In some circumstances, a promoting prostitution conviction can carry a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Overton, however, won't even be spending the prescribed 30 days behind bars.
Here's the math on how 30 days became 0 days: he was given credit for 14 days served before posting bail after his arrest on June 16, and seven more days were waived because of his good behavior during that stretch. The remaining nine days were reduced to community service. There are other repercussions too, of course. He is now a felon and can no longer own firearms or vote. He must pay restitution, and can't contact the victim of his crime for five years.
In court documents, Overton was asked to explain to the judge in his own words what he did that makes him guilty. Here's what he wrote (read for yourself on page 10 of the PDF below):
While I believe that I am innocent, I believe that the evidence in this case is such that a jury would likely find me guilty of the crime charged. Therefore, I request that the read the certification of probable cause to determine whether there is a factual bases [sic] for the crime charged. I am entering into this plea agreement to take advantage of the states [sic]Though probably not Overton's own phrasing (the hoopster was represented by attorney James Bible, who did not respond to a request to comment for this story), the last line pretty much says it all: he's doing this to take advantage of the state's offer. He gets the last word, and he gets to walk away.
Indiana, among three other states, doesn't allow Alford Pleas because their Supreme Court believes such outcomes "undercut public respect for the justice system." John Strait, a professor at Seattle University Law School and an expert in criminal law and procedure says as recently as a decade ago some counties in Washington wouldn't accept Alford Pleas either. Then, as budgets tightened, they became increasingly accepted, a way to "grease cases through the system" and save money on court costs.
"It gives real incentive to plead guilty," Strait says. "If you talk to clients who say 'I didn't do it, how can I plead guilty?' The answer used to be 'You can't, we're going to trial.' After Alford you can say, 'You don't have to admit you did it.'"
The professor also condemns the practice on the grounds that it undermines the justice system. If people are really innocent, he argues, they should have their day in court. And, if they are actually guilty, they should have to own up to their misdeeds.
"If you really believe in rehabilitation, how the hell can you support [an Alford Plea]?" Strait asks. "If someone admits they are guilty but still thinks they are innocent, how are you really going to get them to admit they really need to change their behavior? You get the punishment, but you don't get the rehabilitation, or at least you're not as likely to."
And that's what is most galling about Overton's case. Just months after his infamous "orgy party" and the rape allegations that tarnished his record-setting senior season at UW, he gets caught doing an even dirtier deed. He received a slap on the wrist the first time around, and slightly more firm whack the second.
Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sean O'Donnell, part of a special King County unit, that deals exclusively with sexual and physical abuse cases, says Overton narrowly missed being prosecuted under the state's tough new laws on human trafficking because his victim was not a minor. O'Donnell says he can understand why the outcome of Overton's case might seem "unsatisfactory."
"As a person, I think of any of us would want someone who has admitted they've done something wrong to be able to acknowledge that," the prosecutor says. "But he plead guilty. Let's call it for what it is. He plead guilty to a felony, a very serious offense."
As a Husky basketball player, Overton was known for his aggressive, disruptive defense, a style that earned him the nickname "The Pest," and propelled him to third on UW's all-time steals list. He was also plagued by foul trouble, a tendency that, in hindsight, seems to mirror his life off the court. Perhaps it will also take getting whistled for five charges to end his real life game.