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. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    *So how exactly will the convicted men able to go free?* It should read *So how exactly will the convicted men be able to go free?* I believe in DNA. If those 3 men did not commit the crime who did?

    August 19, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • FedUp

      Byer's step-father (Terry Hobbs) DNA was found at the scene and on at least one of the boys. Also, a friend of Hobb's DNA was found at the scene. Leads me to believe that the step-father is responsible. Not to mention, the bite marks on one of the boys bodies may have been linked to Terry Hobbs...

      August 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Greg G

    Free! Thank the gods! Now let's get that creepy Christian stepdad who actually committed the killings.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      Wow Greg! It sounds like you know exactly what happened.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ginny

      I agree and feel the same way about the step father. Especially since his stepson was killed worse than the other 2 boys!

      August 19, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Luna

      Greg I have always thought the same thing.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mom in MA

      Actually that step dad is speaking out today that they did not kill his son and are innocent. However the DNA of the other step father and a friend WAS found on the boys.. but they weren't 'satanists' so they were never even considered suspects. That step dads hair was found caught in the laces that his son was tied up with, he also said he hadn't seen his son that day when two neighbor ladies say his son was in her yard and that he called him home that afternoon.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark-Az

      Sorry, but it was not Byers, the creepy stepdad. His DNA was not found at the crime scene. Terry Hobbs DNA and David Jacoby on the other hand was.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. genomega1

    Its obvious that two of them rolled on the one who got the death penalty, they're guilty.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • AWest

      No one rolled on anyone if they were ALL released! I don't believe they're guilty. These injustices happen all the time in cases where there are angry public mobs wanting answers and the investigation turns up very little to go on!

      August 19, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erin

      Damien was considered the ringleader/mastermind this is why he got the death penalty and the others got life. He was also a popular target for the town sheriff. Miskelly the confessor, has an IQ of 70, was interrogated for 12 hours before confessing. Most of his confession wasn't even allowed in court because it didn't match the facts of the crime (coerced confession) No DNA or evidence of any kind linked the West Memphis Three to the crime or crime scene, they found no bloody or muddy clothes or shoes, and no DNA left on the bodies came from these boys either. They were all three victims of an overzealous sheriff, and prosecutor who obviously don't care that they have stolen 18 years worth of these boys lives. Even the knife recovered was proven to NOT be the murder weapon.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vince

      I might be late in posting here...but ur a flipping idiot

      August 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |

    i think they know what happen.... to bad waterboarding is only legal on muslims...

    August 19, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Exactly

      Exactly – too bad we can't use it on idiot anonymous posters like you.

      Keep it up tuff guy – we all love your display of idiot proficiency.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cara Nolan

    I read today that the DNA actually matches the step-father and a friend of his. These men were wrongly convicted. Today they are free, but justice was not served!

    August 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • shane

      The problem is....they could have picked that hair up anywhere in the house. Laundry.. sitting on the couch. We leave hairs everywhere. Now if he was a stranger then your on to something.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mom in MA

      Actually Shane they are saying that's not true. The hair was in the knot of the laces binding his dead step son.. the laces had been pulled out of the shoes and the boys had been transported.. at least twice during the crime. Also his friends DNA didn't just happen on by now did it? Even that boys mother now thinks the step dad was involved.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Erin

    I am so happy for these three men to walk free today!!! This is a case I've followed closely since I was in high school, and I feel they were done a terrible injustice. I pray they find the guilty party some day, so these innocent men can have the "guilty" label removed from thier records, and so the families of the three young victiims can finally have some peace. Many people are saying they should never take this deal, but I think it is high time these men were released no matter what the cost.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chad

    genomega1 – how about actually having some knowledge of the case before you spout your non-sense. People like you are why they were falsely convicted in the first place.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. andjusticeforall

    They didn't do it!! We have known this for years.. Cops forced then into confessions with plea deals and they were convicted by appearance! The whole thing was wrong! They were out to burn innocent witches at stake and they did it! Now 3 innocent boys have spent most of their lives behind bars for a crime they didn't commit just for listening to Metallica..

    August 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. What the

    Closure is when you find the real killer. This plea is pretty much a guilty plea which will not motivate the pd to find the real killer. hmph.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Melissa

    It infuriates me that it took this long for it all to happen. Why aren't they going after the step father and his friend or mr. Bojangles who showed up at the diner covered in blood and mud!? To male them plead guilty even though there is proof they aren't makes me sick. The police dropped the ball and just because people listen to metal or where black doesn't male them murderers. Free them without guilt hanging over them.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. USArmyOverLord

    This entire case is one hot mess. So are these guys guilty or not?!? Why would you allow someone who is guilty to go free? Why would you make someone who is not guilty get time served and carry a criminal conviction o their record?!? Also if they guys did not do it are the cops going to search for the real killers?

    August 19, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. coder

    arkansas is as corrupt as washington, period
    (speaking from personal experience in both places)
    you gotta pay off someone in power – that's the american way

    August 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dave

    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. This act allows the Prosecutor to save his job, one he has failed at. This happen alot across this nation, because the prosecutors do not have a solid case, but they need the conviction to keep their jobs. There is no JUSTICE in this nation. It is so failed.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. StoogeFan

    How are they free when they had to plead guilty? DNA even says they were not there. I would have went to trial. The state did it this way so these guys could not sue for the 18 years of being locked up.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • USArmyOverLord

      I agree it was a very weak move on the state's part. If you free these guys then ADMIT that you make a mistake in locking them up in the first place.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim from Toledo

      I am glad these young men were set free – but your statement is wrong.
      The DNA evidence does not prove that they were not at the crime scene – it simply proves that the two pieces of DNA they did find do not belong to the three young men that were convicted. The whole problem with this case all along is the complete lack of physical evidence the prosecutors had. The three kids that were convicted were more or less convicted because they were a little wierd, and the "ringleader", Mr. Echols, liked to read about witchcraft and ritualistic religious stuff. The prosecution's whole case was based on facts that had nothing to do with the murders....
      And the reason the state made the plea, and the reason the young men accepted it, is because a new trial would have taken several months, if not years to complete. The state did not want to pay for another trial, and the young men did not want to sit in jail and wait for the trial if they could get out now......
      The pleas satisfies all parties – except for the parents of the victims who still do not know who killed their children (although there is some evidence that Terry Hobbs did it.....the evidence is weak. They would have to prosecute him based on a single hair and his reputation, which isn't enough).

      August 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Erin

    I hope the cops pursue the stepfather and his friend. The stepfather's hair was in the ligature! There are so many victims here – the three poor little boys and these three men who were just teenagers at the time. Justice has not been served!

    August 19, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
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