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.