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. alawyer

    I've been following this case for many years. It is the ultimate "false confession case" involving a mentally handicapped teenager who was fed details by overzealous prosecutors and cops. These were three very unsophisticated teens at the time, with no understanding of DNA – they would not have known how to hide that evidence. The prosecutors fought the DNA tests for many years. What the DNA tests did find is that the stepfather of one of the boys, as well as his friend, had left DNA tracings on the evidence.

    The state of Arkansas has acted badly in this case from A to Z, and as a resilt, the real killer(s) escaped justice and someone who was barely 18 at the time has spent as many years on death row, waiting to die. They were convicred primarily because of juror misconduct, as well as fear of witchcraft based on the testimony of a fake expert on satanism hired by the prosecution. The entire case was a sick, horrific tragedy and the police and prosecutors involved desrve to spend 18 years in prison themselves – so that they can pay for THEIR crimes against these men – two of who were still children when the case was prosecuted.

    The shame of this case is that they wore these young men down – they just didn't want to live in prison anymore and with their plea, it means that they cannot sue the state and get any compensation for the 18 years that they spent in total hell – for a crime that they did not commit.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom Hartman

      The confessions contained details only the killers would know, and they were not "given the answers" by the police.

      Society has degenerated to the point where unless there is a videotape of someone killing someone, they can't be convicted anymore. It's a joke. These guys are as guilty as sin.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Madd Tish

      "The confessions contained details only the killers would know, and they were not "given the answers" by the police."

      That has been proven to be incorrect as well. Glad everyone who's commenting is so knowledgeable of the case.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ash

      So...does this mean that it's "case closed" as far as the state goes, or can they charge someone else with these crimes (ie the stepfather who can be linked to it by DNA evidence)? I think this plea was misused in this case to save the state from a wrongful conviction lawsuit.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Amen.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Glenn

    I lost all faith in our jury system long ago (e.g. O.J.Simpson trial). Our entire legal system needs an overhaul.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Matt

      Casey Anthony as well.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      I would have voted not guilty for casey anthony as well. Not every crime deserves a prison sentance.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      casey anthony didnt do it either.. the grandfather did..

      August 19, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tina

    I keep thinking that anyone could be accused of a crime and convicted.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. tracie

    Hail Satan. AND doo doo.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. banasy©

    I have been following this case for years.
    It has always been my belief that these three boys were not guilty.
    I am glad these men are being released.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. geraldine Drewlo

    I agree with Tom. We will be judged by God someday. In the meantime we are supposed to pray for these 3 men for their salvation.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Liz

      Salvation from what? An unjustice overzealous religious society that likes to witch hunt people who don't fit what they believe is proper for their town? What are we from Salem during the Greatest Religious overzealous age of all time? Next you'll all want to throw them into a river and if they can swim or float call them Witches but if they drown they're obviously innocent oops to bad they met God. As long as overzealous religious fanatics run our country our justice and political system will continue to Frak people over. Its sad that Religion has to take such a bad rap all the time but thast what happens when people but their personal religious beliefs over the Truth.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • willow

      What Liz said. It's the judges, the jurors, the step father than need your prayers! THEY will get theirs. I am pleased they are free.. not pleased of the manner.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre

      What GOD?

      Religious wing-nuts should only be allowed to go to their Country Clubs with pews and leave us rational people alone; now go take your meds...

      August 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy©

    @alawyer:

    Word.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. bpblizzard

    I hope and pray if these were not the killers that the police are still trying to find who the killer(s) are.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dave

      The state made sure that the police won't be looking for the real killers by doing this plea deal. It's a shame that these guys can't sue and it's a shame for the families that will never see justice in this murder. I firmly the step father Terry Hobbs and his friend did this and will pay somehow.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. LaLa

    I am excited that they have been finally released. I have lived in West Memphis most of my life in the neighborhood where the liitle boys were murdered, and know that the system was flawed. They lost evidence of a man that entered a resturant covered in blood, they never introduced the evidence of one of the little boys father had his DNA on the rope that hogtied the boys.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Sue

    One of these little boys was/is OUR FAMILY!!! justice has again failed the children...the most innocent of all. My heart breaks for my family in arkansas. 3 INNOCENT LITTLE BOYS WERE MURDERED. It wasn't an unfortunate accident...IT WAS MURDER! RIP MICHAEL. God has a special place in hell for those that hurt children...and the ones that defend them.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Liz

      So are you saying that just because 3 young innocent children were murdered someone should pay for it no matter if they're innocent or not? You know the 3 convicted young men were innocent children at the time. What about them? Shouldn't there be justice for all 6 of the victims here?

      August 19, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • rtbrno65

      So go ask Hobbs why his DNA was all over the murder scene and go ask your police department why they "lost" blood DNA evidence then. Show some backbone and hold these people accountable instead of scapegoating an innocent person. Mike's killer is still out there because of this travesty.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Donna

    This is what our system has morphed into: Innocent people spend 18 years locked up with no physicall evidence liking them to the crime and Killers (Anthony) walk free. The issue here is one merely of pride......can ayone in America admit when they are wrong?

    August 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. alawyer

    True – anyone can be accused of a crime and convicted. People make a big deal about the Amanda Knox case in italy, which also was based in part on an overtly false confession and the failure to properly use DNA evidence. But at least there, Amanda Knox is not condemned to death row – she would have served no more than 15 years for her crime regardless, based on the Italian system. More importantly, her case will close within the next year and she most certainly will be freed. The similarities are very obvious despite happening in different countries. Bad cops and prosecutors, insane mainstream media coverage, false confession by person with limited knowledge of the system, very young people involved, etc...

    These cases have happened in many places – so we can't just blame the staggering faux Christian beliefs of the people in West Memphis who were so scared by satanism. Just look at the Central Park Jogger case in NYC – also a false confession case, where the city is still fighting compensating the boys despite conclusive evidence that the crime was committed by a serial rapist/murderer.

    When the police and prosecutors become emotionally and politically invested in the outcome of the case, it can lead to miscarraiges of justice. DNA evidence helps, but sometimes these people fight the reopening of cases based on DNA evidence. When they do so, it is obvious that they have something to hide – whether they are in NYC, West Memohis Arkansas or Italy. Whenever there is a fight to prevent new evidence, ask yourself why.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. rtbrno65

    The really puzzling thing for me as that the parents were in the courtroom and heard the same (lack) of evidence (i.e Mr. Bojangles and the DNA blood evidence that the police said they "lost") and yet none of them expressed any outrage that it appears that whomever actually did this to their kids could still be walking free. If it were one of my kids I would have gone ballistic if I heard that a man covered in blood the night of the murders and nearby had his collected blood samples "lost" by police, I would have been outraged . It seems like they were more interested in somebody, anybody getting fried for this whether it was a person actually involved or not, and that just doesn't make any sense to me.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tim from Toledo

      These parents (at least those that didn't commit the crime) were led to believe by the local Police Department and District Attorney that they definitely had the killers in jail. They probably didn't have access to every single fact that has since been released to the public.....they wanted justice, and they thought they were getting it.
      One of the parents, Byers (who was a suspect for a long time himself), has since declared that they convicted the wrong people.....but only after several years because it took that long for enough evidence to come out and prove these boys were innocent.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • rtbrno65

      But that still doesn't explain the lack of response to the Bojangles evidence. The police officer said right on the stand that he lost the blood evidence and nobody seemed interested in that. They showed Steve Branch and it looked like he didn't even hear it, or didn't care. Where was the concern that the actual perpetrators might be getting off scot free?

      August 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mian

    How can they go free was the question? Easy answer... they are not black.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tim from Toledo

      Ridiculous comment. Has nothing to do with it.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • willow

      Really? I'm disappointed ANYONE would make such a statement. As has been stated elsewhere, there are 6 victims here.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      That's just ridiculous! Color has nothing to do with it. Get a clue.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jon

    They can be freed because they are innocent, i just hope they go after the Stepfather whose DNA is all over the murder scene!

    August 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • willow

      Amen to that. There is no statute of limitations I beleive. THAT will be a day I dance on the rooftops. film at 11.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
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