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. Caroline

    **accidentally pushed something that posted before I was done.

    You are sent to DEATH ROW. You spend 18 years in prison and then you are given an opportunity to go free. You have to chose whether you trust the system that screwed you over the first time, or make a plea that gaurantees not only your freedom, but your survival.

    These boys might just be once bitten, twice shy. You are kidding yourself if you think that you would have done differently. Who of you would rather be a dead innocent than have to live with a guilty wrap on your record?

    August 20, 2011 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      and as for bagging out their lawyers, I would not be surprised if they accepted this deal despite their defence attorneys objections. They probably would never have been able to convince the 'boys' to go to trial again. They have to look at all options and the 'boys' ultimately made the decision. I would imagine it wasn't a decision that was made lightly either.

      August 20, 2011 at 7:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. tony

    People once again DNA does not prove guilt or innocence. DNA is only means a person contacted something or someone. If a suspects DNA is not a the scene is does not mean they are innocent, CSI and HBO are entertainment.

    August 20, 2011 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
    • jam108

      Tony, I think what you meant to say is that the absence of DNA evidence doesn't "prove" guilt or innocence. In our American judicial system, we are presumed innocent; thus the onus is on the government to prove guilt. No evidence is needed to establish innocence.

      August 20, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Nancy

      Yall pay tention DNA done mean nothin

      August 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy

      I can't use the word TARD in the traditional meaning but, in your applies.

      August 20, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • jack

      IF dna is not at the scene it means you werent there Duh Of course it means your innocent!

      August 20, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Garfield

      In this case? The presence of an unknown person's DNA on two of the victim's genitals absolutely does indeed prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the prosecutor's narrative is completely and utterly wrong. We already knew that before the DNA evidence came in, but the DNA really, really does nail it.

      August 21, 2011 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
  3. Caroline

    Dammit, this is not facebook and therefor there is no "like" button – but Willow, I like the crapola out of this post!

    August 20, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. Enoch

    Unbelievable. If the state has enough evidence to re-convict, then re-convict. If they did it, they should not be free and should not be allowed this plea. If they didn't do it, then the state needs to acknowledge that and find the real killer(s) (The DNA evidence pointed to the step-father and his friend) To leave the families of the victims in this legal limbo just compounds the loss of their children, IMO.

    August 20, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • julie

      Wouldn't it be nice if the Judicial system worked that way? But no, it's far from perfect which is why these men had to take the plea in the first place. There was absolutely no evidence that the men had commited these crimes but they took the plea simply becuase they could not go back to prison. Damien was facing excecution and a new trial could have been years away. As for them finding the real killer, they're not even going to try. The prosecution stated that they still believe that these men are guilty so there is no need to look for the real killer. It's so sad that this is how it had to happen but at least three innocent men are free

      August 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      i agree,if they really killed 3 boys so viciously and the state has enough to probably reconvict ,than do it ,im saying if they really had enough they would of never let these men go free ,the state did the alford so they could still take credit for the first convictions ,these guys would of never went free,unless they feel they did enough time and were kids i dont know,im not saying the wm3 are guilty at all,there really hasnt been solid evidence to say they did it but i could see why they were looked into ,but there conviction does sound bogus

      August 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grayson

      Enoch: The problem with the stepfather's hairs being on the victim or transferred to the other victims during the attack is the fact the boy lived with his mother and stepfather, of course his hairs will be on the boy. This alone cannot conclusively point to the stepfather as the perpetrator. If your son or daughter was murdered would you want to be convicted because your hair was on your kid? No you wouldn't because this type of transference is atypical of people living in the same household.

      August 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jen

    Ok, we release these guys back into our community after being locked up on death row and serving life sentences. But we put the word Guilty on them. So getting a job, earning a living with be pretty impossible. They are still going to be living off the government one way or another. DNA proves nothing. Get more evidence to prove one way or another. Until then keep them locked up. If we gotta pay for them. I rather pay while we wait to hear if they are truly innocent vs having them out, paying for them and risking this happening to another person or persons.

    August 20, 2011 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Sandy

      They are innocent. I have followed this case since I was little with my mom and like her I tried to look at this whole thing objectively. It's clear as day they didn't do it once you look at EVERYTHING! where they came from and the corruption of that police department aided in convicting them. That and the hype over supposed "satanic" involvement. I understand that the three boys murdered deserve justice but at the same time the convictions should be on the right people. Pinning it on someone just to get false closure doesn't make you any better than the actual killer, you're still taking away someones life. I hope they follow through and clear their names and also try and pinpoint who really did it.

      August 20, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Riley

      DNA proves nothing? You literally have no clue what you're talking about Besides the DNA though, there's a variety of other evidence that shows they are innocent, too. Stop talking. Thank god you're not in charge of anything important

      August 20, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • richard

      ALL DNA can prove is if you where there, it can't prove you weren't there. Depending on what happened there may or may not be DNA, or the item that had the DNA on it may not have been tested, or the spot where there was DNA is located might not have been tested.

      They were found GUILTY, once you are found guilty it up to YOU to have to prove you're innocent, its not up to the to prove over and over again that your are guilty.

      You are innocent until proven guilty, the state has to convince 12 people you are guilty, if only ONE person says no, then the best the state can do is have another trial. The law is stacked in favor of the accused, these three admit that the state probably still have enough evidence to convict them. And almost every in jail didn't do it.

      They need to be in jail.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  6. bigwilliestyles

    I'm not surprised by them accepting the Alford plea deal even if they are 100 percent innocent. If you've been in prison for 18 years (especially on death row), then someone offers you a deal that let's you out immediately, you take it, no matter what it is.

    August 20, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  7. DH

    these men were railroaded like so many others in our system. shame on those who failed miserably in the original investigation. Shame on the current prosecutor who is closing this case and shame Arkansas for not admitting the wrongs that were committed and taking responsibility for those actions. This deal was cut to allieviate future litigation and a huge check. Pathetic. No one owns up anymore. I feel sad for the U.S. of A.

    August 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. David

    I hope these guys get rich from all of this (write books, obtain settlements, etc). They certainly deserve it

    August 20, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Onan Salad

    I'm still mystified how the case was reopened for new pleas in the first place. The "new" evidence was no evidence, thus the original case remains closed. While I see why the prosecutor, facing an almost certain loss in a retrial, would want to quickly get them to plead guilty and close the case – I don't see how any judge would reopen the case for new pleas. Perhaps there is some nuance in Arkansas law where prosecutors can arbitrarily reopen cases for new pleas? I'm not convinced of these guys' guilt, but the three children killed deserve more than this plea bargain. Either the WM3 confess their guilt for a deal, or they stay in for a few months longer until a retrial frees them and forces the police to perform a proper investigation. I realize the authorities in this case were biased; but so were the filmmakers who made paradise lost. This seems like a sell-out on both sides: the prosecution because they don't want to investigate the case anymore and the WM3 to plead guilty to something they've always claimed they were innocent of. This may be considered the "balance of justice" between the prosecution and the defendents – but what about justice for the three boys? They'd be having their 21st birthdays now – if their corpses hadn't been found hogtied with their own shoelaces.

    August 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
  10. tony

    What I am trying to get people to understand is that if an individuals DNA is not at a crime scene that does not mean that they were not there. If DNA is at the scene further evidence is still needed. Example, if DNA is found on a weapon you still need to reconstruct the crime, motive, means, ability ect:. It seems many believe that DNA proves guilt or in this case innocence.

    August 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Garfield

      And what I am trying to get you to understand is that DNA was found all over the site and on the bodies, including genetic material belonging to the same previously unmentioned person on two (two, not one) of the children's genitals. Hair fibers from the step-father were found on one of the kids (not his), and hair fiber from the step-father's best friend and alibi for the night somehow magically found its way onto the tree stump next to the bodies. In this day and age, these teenagers wouldn't have even been investigated, much less prosecuted.

      August 21, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ladylaw,Esq.

    Go to Arkansas Online to see the hearing in its entirety.
    Look up West Memphis Three
    Inside the courtroom in the West Memphis case
    Listen to the Judge particularly at 30 minutes, after the WM3 leave the courtroom. His comments to the public are very telling.

    August 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. cuffs

    I don't care if they didn't do it. If they were convicted. of the crime were sentence to life. They should. stay in prison for their horrific crimes. The legal system would show me the muderers will walk free among us. Then that means for those who are locked up for the same damn reasons like these men did. Then well hell might as well let them go too.why stop at 3 convicted killers? Your giving these men "get out of jail" free card. There was no justice done for the boys who lost their lives to " I'm not guilty" plea. Or "I didn't do it" OK well if this is what it takes for killers to be set free cause they did their time. Something is wrong with the f***** system.

    August 21, 2011 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Garfield

      I've noticed two different groups of people on these threads. People who have actually read the facts in the case and people who think the WM3 are guilty.

      August 21, 2011 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
    • What?

      But if they didn't do it, then there are no horrific crimes for them to stay in jail for.

      August 22, 2011 at 6:25 am | Report abuse |
  13. cuffs

    Your giving criminals a way out to freedom when they should stay in prison for life for what they have done. Its like the boys who were killed by these ruthless murderers had no one fighting for them. Justice wasn't on their side. Here you go murderers take these "out of jail "free cards you derserve it. If u were convicted of the crime and sentence to life in prison shouldn't it stick? Or was it because they got out on "good behavior"? For whatever reason the killers will walk the streets and do another killing. Justice wasn't on the 3 little boys side..nope they died in vain because the law didn't protect them.

    August 21, 2011 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Garfield

      I agree that it's sad that the police, the prosecutor, the judge, and yes, the defense attorney all screwed up pretty big on this case. But that doesn't mean that innocent people should have to spend their lives in jail. They didn't get 'get out of jail free' cards, they got 'we both know we shouldn't have put you in jail in the first place, please don't sue us for 50 million dollars' cards.

      August 21, 2011 at 3:14 am | Report abuse |
  14. alumette

    These pictures show some mean spirited souls. I would reach for my gun if they came near me together. My gut feeling is that they killed and tortured these three little boys. After 18 years in jail they are singing a different tune and some people are supporting them. That DNA specifically does not mean anything. Misskelley had confessed shortly after his arrest and implicated the other two. What is wrong with this picture ? they should be in jail until they die. Another error in the justice system.

    August 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cheryl

      You really need to research this case so you can have all of the facts...

      August 22, 2011 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. katelynn

    i put it this way they should of never went to jail in the first place because of wat they wear and wat music they listen to but my problem is why now use the technology when we could of followed up on this case when we first got the dna technology instead theysat in there because people are stupid and they didnt do this they are really nice boys just different ways of showing it

    August 22, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
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