How can West Memphis 3 walk free?
August 19th, 2011
01:11 PM ET

How can West Memphis 3 walk free?

Three men convicted of killing three West Memphis, Arkansas, boys in 1993 were freed following a court hearing Friday.

The men - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin attended the hearing in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Echols had been sentenced to death, and Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences in the May 1993 slayings of Steven Branch and fellow second-graders Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. The boys' bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.

So how exactly were the convicted men able to go free?

New DNA evidence failed to link the men to the crime, and the state Supreme Court ruled in November that all three could present new evidence to the trial court in an effort to clear them. A decision was pending on whether the three would get a true trial. In essence, the deal made today negates the need for that.

The three struck a deal with the prosecution by entering what is known as an Alford plea, which means they didn't admit to any actual criminal act, but they did acknowledge the prosecution probably has enough evidence that it would lead to their conviction.

Under the deal reached Friday Echols and Baldwin entered what is known an Alford plea on three counts of first degree murder. Misskelley entered similar pleas to one count of first degree murder and two counts of second degree murder. Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser sentenced the three to the 18 years already served and imposed a 10-year suspended sentence - meaning they could be returned to jail if they violate the law.

"In a nutshell, you are pleading guilty not because you admit that you did something wrong but because you are concerned the state has enough evidence to prove you guilty," attorney B.J. Bernstein said. "This is a common thing in tough cases, where a defendant is just adamant; I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it. They won't confess to it, but the evidence is so strong they are going to lose."

The highly technical legal maneuver also allows the three to be freed and be considered innocent. Although an Alford plea is treated as a guilty plea for sentencing, it cannot be held against the three men in any subsequent criminal prosecution or civil proceeding.

The Alford plea stems from a Supreme Court case that looked at whether you could negotiate a plea deal when someone says they are not guilty. Typically, when you plead guilty, a judge asks you if you are in fact guilty of the crime you have pleaded to. The concern in the Alford case was whether people would plead guilty only to crimes they maintained they were innocent of because they were coerced. But the court ruled that defendants concerned about what would happen during a trial can in fact plead guilty while saying they didn't commit the crime.

"The thing about Alford is, it’s a tool to end the case," said Bernstein, who has been both a prosecutor and defense attorney. "Because they are pleading guilty, from the prosecutor's view, everything a guilty plea means, is possible. But they haven’t lost anything. They are getting that guilty, versus some other resolution ... like offering a lesser charge."

Bernstein said that even if the three men are freed, they will still have the word "guilty" and its implications attached to them when it comes to things like termination of rights and trying to apply for a job.

But overall, the goal of a deal like this is to get resolution in a tough case. Because the men were convicted in 1993 and new evidence has been introduced, Bernstein said, the length of time between the cases could prove difficult for prosecutors. It's a matter of time and money to pursue the case as well.

Although an Alford plea is used in difficult cases, some people don't view it favorably all the time depending on the case itself.

"Otherwise, you have a lot of people saying 'I'll plead guilty, but I'm not guilty,' " Bernstein said.

And in most cases, people want a clear-cut answer.

In this case, which has been in the national spotlight and drawn much public interest, the Alford plea could be seen as the easiest way to at least get some resolution to the case, with the interests of  both parties in mind.

"It is the mechanism to get closure," Bernstein said.

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Filed under: Arkansas • Courts • Crime • Justice
soundoff (496 Responses)
  1. Darwin

    WOW! Do any of you even know what you're talking about? I've been following this case for a very long time. There was little to no evidence to convict these guys in the first place. They've had the last 18 years of their lives stolen from them because they were the "strange kids" in town, and they needed someone to blame for this crime. They took whatever deal would get them out, that's all. Unfortunately, that deal apparently involved admittance of guilt. I've never spent 18 years in prison for a crime I didn't commit, but I imagine I would do almost anything to get out too. I usually make my point on a blog without insulting people, but in this case I'm going to make an exception. To all of you moronic, inbred, 40 year old virgins still living in your parents basements, try educating yourselves on a topic before you make complete asses of yourselves.

    Congratulations guys, I'm so happy for you!

    August 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Diana Evans

      agreed!!!

      August 19, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • George Patton

      Well said Darwin, I totally agree with you. Like I said before, not everyone who gets convicted in a U.S. court of law is automatically guilty as a lot people think they are. The system is simply not infallable!

      August 19, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      I have not followed this case, but I am curious as to why the one boy confessed to the murders?

      August 19, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • alexisdumb

      "I have not followed this case, but I am curious as to why the one boy confessed to the murders?"

      He didn't, the confession was written for him and he was forced to sign after three days of interrogation, with no representation. He was beaten and tortured.

      In short, classic Arkansas police work.

      August 19, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • OkayNw

      I totally agree, great post

      August 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darwin

      That's mostly true. I don't think he was ever tortured, but he was interrogated for several hours. He has a very low IQ, which was taken advantage of. He was tricked into signing/admitting certain things. All of that is irrelevant anyway, seeing as how any "confessions" he made were thrown out of the case when it was discovered that he was coerced by police.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vicky

      I hope these celebrities who took so much interest and helped put the spotlight on this case intend to stick by these guys. They have the resources to provide them with gameful employment and the counseling they are all going to need so badly.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Miri

      John, yes, Darwin is right. Jessie Misskelly was bullied into a confession after many hours of interrogation without a parent or attorney present (he was a minor, so this is really not ok. The police basically told him what he had to say, and many parts of his story don't even line up with the actual timeline of events for the murders. He also had an IQ of 72, which makes him borderline mentally handicapped, hence the ease with which he was bullied. Very shady police practices all around in this case

      But the police chief in West Memphis said on the local news today that all 3 of them are welcome to return to West Memphis and would be afforded the same police protection given to all other citizens. Very gracious of him.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Dude

      The White Trash in Memphis prosecuted them because they didn't fit their Southern Christian Ideal.

      Christians should not be allowed to be on a jury, those people are hate filled closed minded idiots.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMazz

      You're so ignorant. These guys did it. One of them has confessed three times to 3 separate people. "Because they're strange"? You mean because Damien Nichols had a history of mutilating animals (much like the victims were) and was considered dangerous by his psychologist?

      August 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darwin

      JMazz

      You're so ignorant. These guys did it. One of them has confessed three times to 3 separate people. "Because they're strange"? You mean because Damien Nichols had a history of mutilating animals (much like the victims were) and was considered dangerous by his psychologist?

      Ignorant huh? Which "one" confessed 3 times, (not coerced to do so by police) and where did you get that number anyway? Also, it's Damien Echols genius. If you're going to call me ignorant you better know what you're talking about before you do or I'll verbally b!tch slap you with every FACT I know on the topic you inbred illiterate looser. Go read a book!

      August 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • jimjim

      I am actually sad for them: the prosecution, having once unlawfully convicted them through gross bad acts, now extorts them by denying their freedom, despite knowing they were innocent, unless they promise not to sue.

      One shouldnt' have to negotiate to be released when wrongly convicted. Innocence should triumph over the egos of lawyers.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darwin

      @JMazz since you either can't read, or are too lazy to do so; CNN has been broadcasting about it pretty much all day. Turn the cannel from cartoon network and educate yourself.

      August 19, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darwin

      @JMazz It's starting right now! Hurry up and change the channel!

      August 19, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Robert Shaperio

    Very confusing way to get out of prison this Alford plea. Hard for the average lay person to understand. I do really feel though for the families of the victims, If the state has closed the case the families will never have any justice.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      I completely agree. If the police had spent HALF the effort in proper investigation that they did in trying to manufacture a case against the people they thought were weird-looking, they might have caught the murderer(s) right away. "Misplaced" evidence, coerced confession of a minor with an IQ of 72, snitch testimony, correspondence school "occult expert"... completely disgraceful. If you really look at the way the case was handled, it is really scary. The judge is supposed to keep bunk evidence out, not act like a cheerleader for the prosecution. I'm glad the judge is now a politician, and no longer in a position to assist with miscarriages of justice.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Diana Evans

      I agree, Robert and Lisa!

      August 19, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. John

    After Alfred comes Barney.... that is the massive lawsuit all 3
    will file against the Barney-like police dept that put 3 innocent boys
    in prison for murders they did not commit.......

    Next stop? Civil court lawsuit filings....

    I only hope they get a massive award against this travesty of justice... that ruined their lives and took their
    youth.

    Now the Barney-like police dept can go and arrest the step father of the kid who was killed-18 years later.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Betty

      Part of the deal was that they cannot sue in civil court. They got the shaft again.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      What's more important? Money or trying to get your life back together after a long time? Makes me laugh every time I see someone start talking about lawsuits in cases like this. They got their freedom, they should be happy with that. Not everything in this world revolves around money, but I guess in your "world" it does. So sad......

      August 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • alexisdumb

      An Alford plea doesn't allow that.

      No civil case, learn what you're talking about.

      August 19, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kenny_b

      Really Matt? 18 years of Jail time for a crime you didn't commit and these boys should just move on? With a conviction for an infamous felony case, no job experience to speak of and you suggest they should be happy enough to just be free?

      Are you incapable of mentally taking a walk in these boys shoes when you make those remarks? I just can't fathom that somebody can think the way you are.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. derekur

    we need a law where zealous prosecutor can be tried in court if they send innocent people to prison. this will help cut down on criminal minded prosecutor from destroying people lives.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mojo Jojo

      I absolutely couldn't agree with you more.... These prosecutors get away with what amounts to a crime!!

      August 19, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ned

      This is blackmail. The judicial is dangling freedom in front of these men with a 'no contest' plea, which doesn't exonerate them, and thus doesn't admit prosecutorial misconduct (possible) or judicial misconduct (no doubt). Further miscarriage of justice in this case. All hail USA.

      August 19, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kenny_b

      The supreme court just shot this concept down this year with respect to I believe Harry Connick Jrs dad down in Louisiana. He had a long, cruel and sad history of prosecutorial misconduct. But the Supreme court held you couldn't sue for the misconduct.

      Sadly this won't be happening unless congress makes it a law.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mark

    Only in America.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • WarEagle

      Only in America? Really?? Why don't you move to Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Iran, or Russia, etc., and try the justice systems in those countries?

      August 19, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
  6. tony

    Just so people know, you don't need physical evidence to prove guilt. CSI is not real.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • sugartaste81

      No, but the DNA evidence clearly EXCLUDES these three men.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. John

    the article is incorrect in its statement that an Alford plea cannot be used against a defendant; a conviction by Alford plea, like a convcition via guilty plea, jury or bench trial verdict, can indeed be used against the defendant. There is no adnmission of guiltin an Alford plea, but the resulting conviction is still admissible to the same extent the other types of conviction would be.

    August 19, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ArtInChicago

    What?!!! No wonder I like the movie Law Abiding Citizen.

    August 19, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ralph

    I live in Memphis, and remember this case well. I am very much for "do process', I remember telling people this, and was almost beating up. People just new they were guilty, and the media fed into that. This case was driven by the media, and all they did was pound into people's head that they were guilty, and nothing more to be said. Kind of reminds me of Casey Allen. The hell with "do process, they're quility, hang 'em now. Stupid people.

    August 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ned

      due process

      August 19, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jai

    So who is the DNA going to be linked to ?

    August 19, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • KipArmadillo

      The only DNA reported to be found at the crime scene thus far belonged to the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, as well as the stepfather's friend. Prosecutors have insisted they are not suspects, though – as the DNA could have been transported to the crime scene one the boys' bodies (via a hair from their house being stuck to clothing, etc.). The important part was that the DNA evidence ruled OUT the WM3.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • sugartaste81

      Actually, there was new DNA evidence found in November 2010-found on one of the victim's shoes. The testing revealed that the DNA belonged to 2 unidentified men, but again, completely ruled out the WM3. This was announced only a month ago and was going to be presented at the new hearings.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Kenny_b

    Somebody please tell me there is some effort ongoing or planned to investigate the step father. What happened to the boys that were freed today is a tragedy. But what about the little boys???

    It's a massive understatement but this is so brutally wrong on so many levels.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John williams

    so if you kill someone, but get rid of the evidence and your dna isn't at the scene of the crime, you can get off free. I tell you what. Lets just let all those who have killed someone out of jail and move in right next door to all the people that think you have to have dva evidence for someone to be guilty. When they kill your kids, don't come and cry on an internet message board.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Darwin

    Here’s at least one of your killers. DUH!

    John Mark Byers

    Read the West Memphis 3 wiki page section on him and tell me if you disagree.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JJ

    So the prosecutors were too chickensh1t to try the case on the new evidence. THAT is the real bottom line here.

    August 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Less finger pointing, more fixing.

    "The Dude-The White Trash in Memphis prosecuted them because they didn't fit their Southern Christian Ideal. Christians should not be allowed to be on a jury, those people are hate filled closed minded idiots."

    What a retard, you should be allowed to vote or have kids.

    August 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
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