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My understanding is that:

  • A "guilty" plea means the defendant admits that they have performed the action(s) in question and admits wrongdoing (hence "guilty"); while
  • A "not guilty" plea means the defendant not only denies wrongdoing, but denies having performed the action(s) in question.

What would be the name of a plea where the defendant admits to having performed the action(s) in question, but denies any wrongdoing? I thought this was nolo contendere, but turns out that means something completely different.

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A plea consenting to entry of a criminal judgment, in general, without admitting that one is actually guilty of the crime, is called a no contest plea or a nolo contendere plea. Among lawyers it is often called an Alford plea, although in West Virginia it is called a Kennedy plea (in both cases named after court cases related to that kind of plea).

A plea where a defendant admits to having performed the actions in question but denies any wrong doing is a sub-set of this type of plea.

When a no contest plea is made reserving the right to appeal whether a crime has been committed if the admitted facts are true, this subtype of no contest plea is sometimes called a conditional plea. If the defendant prevails on appeal, the no contest plea in a conditional plea is withdrawn. See also here.

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