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. Cesar

    Guilty! Fry em! Fry em! Fry em! Fry em!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre

      People like you should be FRIED!

      You're probably from Arkansas and a CHRISTIAN too.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phillip

      I lived in memphis when this happened and followed the story very close. These (boys) now men were convicted because the music they listened to and the clothes they wore. There is no evidence to link them to the three kids that were killed or to the crime scene. Do some research before you post stupid comments on topics that you clearly don't know anything about.

      August 19, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • wildwildwest

      gurll, you is just clinically ignurrant. (in the words of Shirley Q)

      August 20, 2011 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
  2. jimjim

    This is disgusting. A sad day for justice.

    The prosecution pretty much said: "we know you are innocent, but we can't let you out because then you will sue the heck out of us."

    The case is now "closed," so the real murderer(s) will never be caught, but hey, the police can pretend they didn't blow the case.

    August 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre

      NO ONE could possibly say it any better... Thank You!

      August 19, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Drew

      Well put

      August 19, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nina

      You are most probably right.

      August 19, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Practical Fool

      Even though you were given the tools you have failed to use them. Even though you have been given accurate information you have failed to organize and understand it. Questions can sometimes lead to answers. Did you know that a judge cannot take a guilty plea in any type of felony without sufficient evidence on the record that proves the defendant is guilty of the crime, otherwise the plea can be considered void? Does this help?

      August 19, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • herb666

      I agree. The most pathetic word dance I've seen in awhile. Pathetic!

      August 20, 2011 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
  3. AndyBlue

    This makes no sense. "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,"

    Our criminal justice system is a mess. A disgusting mess.

    August 19, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • blendergasket

      Sort of a deconstructive thread that makes the whole edifice unravel isn't it.

      August 20, 2011 at 4:07 am | Report abuse |
  4. Tbob

    Alford pleas are state sponsored terrorism by a criminal enterprise, called in this case Arkansas. If they had given them a dismissal with prejudice, they would have been able to sue the state for stealing their lives away. Southern justice still sucks.

    August 19, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. media scientist

    "For the sake of the children" our maker knows if justice is right

    August 20, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mark Santos

    I've been playing Poker for years, the looks on each of their faces says "I've been caught" plain and simple, for all you un-educated americans you are probably thinking "The wrongfully accused were finally set FREE!" for all you smart american's you've realized that when a story gets coverage in the later years like this one had and costs the State a lot of tax dollars you might as well let them walk free.

    what a joke and disgrace in the name of Justice, First O.J and then Casey ...Now these 3 low lifes.

    August 20, 2011 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Josh-Wa

      You deride the uneducated masses who believe that these three were falsely sent to jail, but you base your apparently well-educated opinion on the fact that you have played poker for years, and thus can read their faces in some photos and ascertain they are guilty.

      Someone's been drinking the Bush-Putin kool-aid. I guess we'll just believed you peered into their soul and saw the truth. That sounds way above my educational level.

      August 20, 2011 at 6:23 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mark Santos

    I've been playing Poker for years, the looks on each of their faces says "I've been caught" plain and simple, for all you un-educated americans you are probably thinking "The wrongfully accused were finally set FREE!" for all you smart american's you've realized that when a story gets coverage in the later years like this one had and costs the State a lot of tax dollars you might as well let them walk free.

    what a joke and disgrace in the name of Justice, First O.J and then Casey ...Now these 3 low lifes

    August 20, 2011 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
    • wildwildwest

      and you too, are just clinically ignurrant. (Thanks, Shirley Q)

      August 20, 2011 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Boss

      Mark Santos plays Poker so he must be an expert on peoples reactions. He isn't a world famous Poker player. So he must get tricked at the table. What a Jack and an Ace you are. Has anyone ever got convicted by the testimony of a poker player's opinion on a persons expression?

      August 20, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mark Santos

    Another thing if they were innocent they WOULDN'T HAVE PLEADED GUILTY TO ANYTHING! They would of waited for the so called DNA testing to set them FREE WITH THE ABILITY TO SUE!


    August 20, 2011 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • lease

      The DNA test proved they were innocent 3 years ago! they were trying to put Damien to death, anyone would sign just about anything to get out of jail after being there for 18 years for something you didnt do and the prosecutor knew that.

      The deal was they say they say there was enought evidence for a jury to find them guilty (not that they are guilty, they are still saying they are innocent) and they get out of jail. what kind of logic is that?

      August 20, 2011 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Zach

      You obviously don't know anything about the case then. The only one that admitted anything was Misskelly and that was because he was coerced and had an IQ of 72 or something. Stick to poker, you are obviously an idiot.

      August 20, 2011 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
  9. Darwin

    John Mark Byers

    The knife

    1. He had a knife with blood matching either himself or his adoptive son, victim Christopher Byers on it.
    2. At first he said he never used the knife.
    3. When the blood was found on the knife he admitted he used it only once to cut deer meat.
    4. When told the blood matched either his or Chris' blood types, Byers said he had no idea how that blood might have gotten on the knife.
    5. West Memphis police suggested to Byers that he might have left the knife out accidentally, and Byers agreed with this.
    6. Byers later stated that he may have cut his thumb.

    The Polygraph test

    1. He agreed to, and subsequently passed, a polygraph test, but was under the influence of several psychoactive prescription medications that could have affected the test results.

    The teeth marks

    1. Byers volunteered his false teeth to be compared against teeth marks on the boys, although at the time of the murders he had his original teeth.
    2. At first he claimed he had them voluntarily extracted so he could get dentures.
    3. Later he said there was a medical reason for the procedure.
    4. In another instance he claimed they were knocked out in a fight.
    5. He also said the medication he was taking made them fall out.

    Hmmm. I’m no lawyer, but when people are telling the truth they usually don’t change their story, especially not 5 or 6 times.

    August 20, 2011 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
    • SteveR

      Well Said, Byers has always seemed to be a angry nut ball who could go off in a a moment and an obvious media ego hog. Saddest thing here is the Alford plea, which really just removes any tort civil liability for the city and state. Can it be removed if they actual charge and convict the real killer? If it is absolutely proven they didn't do it in the future, what is the value of the Alford plea besides freedom?

      August 20, 2011 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
    • wildwildwest

      Experts have since stated that the "bite marks" were not human bite marks, but probably came from wild animals after the boys were killed and left in the water...

      August 20, 2011 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Darwin

      Both are good points. The "bite marks" may have been caused by animals. The problem is "the experts" weren't "hard pressed" to prove anything, nor where forensic sciences as advanced as they are today. Sadly, we may never know the truth. As for the Alford Plea, I believe (and as I stated before, I'm not a lawyer) if it's proven beyond a doubt that they were innocent then that would make any "deal" null and void in the first place, and action could be taken. Again, the problem is we may never know. As for Mr. Byers, he now admits that he thinks they're innocent. My theory on that is he couldn't live with the fact that these 3 men were in prison for what he did. Also, he was quick to jump on the "Terry Hobbs did it" band wagon, which makes me wonder as well. 1 of Terry Hobbs's hairs was found at the crime scene. Okay, is there a possibility he had something to do with it? In a case as confusing as this I would say it's possible. However, these 3 young boys (the victims) were friends and probably spent the night at each other’s houses. It's not outrageous to believe that one of them might have gotten a hair on them. Basically, I would bet a million dollars that Mr. Byers at least had something to do with their deaths.

      August 20, 2011 at 3:42 am | Report abuse |
  10. Elizabeth Wood

    Prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said the deal offers the best compromise to an 18-year-old case under siege by new DNA findings, stale evidence and dead witnesses.

    "On behalf of the state I have preserved the verdicts of those juries and averted more prolonged and costly trials and appeals in this case," Ellington said.

    Ellington acknowledged that Judge Laser was "most likely going to grant a new trial." And if that happened, Ellington said, "These defendants, the state believes, could very easily have been acquitted."

    Their were financial considerations, too. Ellington said acquittals could have led to financial settlements costing the state huge sums. The guilty pleas prevent that exposure, he said.

    The Defense screwed their clients. In 4 short months (4 months compared to 18 years = a VERY short time) they could have been fully exonerated.

    This is NOT Defense

    This is NOT Justice.

    I totally understand WHY the Prosecution accepted this deal BUT WHY would the Defense suggest it? And WHY would those boys go for it??

    In the long run it makes NO SENSE except for the obvious of costing the state $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!!

    Justice was NOT served!

    August 20, 2011 at 3:12 am | Report abuse |
  11. Dave Esq.

    The question remains "who murdered these children?"

    I don't think the evidence that supposedly "exonerates" the WM3 is very conclusive. The same doubts raised about the quality of the evidence against them applies to this evidence. Can it even be called exculpatory? 2 of the WM3 left for California days after the murders. None passed lie detector tests. Does this mean they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? I don't think so.

    This case was weak and the investigators messed it up. Casey Anthony shows that when the criminal justice system rushes to trial, mistakes are made and evidence can be lacking. The WM3 could have actually murdered these children but I doubt that anyone will be brought to justice other than the time served. Ladies and gentlemen, justice is like any commodity, you get what you pay for. Unfortunately for some, their cases weren't media events.

    August 20, 2011 at 5:51 am | Report abuse |
  12. mike

    So, if you end up with a lot of publicity, with a bunch of Hollywood types behind you (who don't have a clue what actually happened either) you can claim that there is "new evidence", and require half-broke state to conduct the trial all over again? 20 years later? After you have already been convicted? and confessed?
    This is a sad day for the justice system. This strikes me as double jeopardy in reverse.
    This article talks about "closure". Who give a damn about "closure"?
    The court system is not designed to make us feel good.

    August 20, 2011 at 5:54 am | Report abuse |
  13. Scotty

    Another million dollar book deal on the way!!!

    August 20, 2011 at 6:26 am | Report abuse |
  14. James

    For the most part people are fools. Just because their DNS wasn't found may only mean one this, they didn't leave any. As far as you people blaming the cops at every turn, how would they know the one suspect had a low IQ. I suppose you could assume that based on all the players in the case being either dope fiends or liars. When was the last time you worked a crime scen eoutdoors, not exactly a sterile area? I suppose we should now require the police complete a mental test of suspects before being questioned. Most of what I read elswhere soley blames the police, no one else had any responsibility. People have latched on to excuses and ran with it. When a crime goes to trial the prosecution presents what is available. The defense attorney is responsible for challanging it and with the jury pool being mostly fools, generally buy it a true. When this was first reported the one suspect was said to have a low IQ, now he is mention as being retarded.

    August 20, 2011 at 6:28 am | Report abuse |
  15. Caroline

    It's so easy to be sitting in your comfortable home saying 'If they were innocent they never would have accepted this plea. That proves they are guilty" But you might like to consider this for a moment:

    You are 18 years old. You have been accused of a crime you DIDN'T commit. You think there is no way known that you could be found guilty because you didn't do it so the prosecution couldn't possibly prove that you did. To your surprised you are not only tried but CONVICTED

    August 20, 2011 at 7:44 am | Report abuse |
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