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. Henry

    This sucks. While I don't believe in the death penalty for anybody, these swine should rot in prison, in a small cage with nothing more than food and water to sustain their horrible lives.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Pretty obviously these guys didn't do it. The cops couldn't find the guilty parties so they just hung it on the annoying local teenagers. Save your anger for the real killers. They made a deal because if they are innocent, they can sue the cops for millions and the cops can't afford it.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Julie

      Those three men are not swine. If you have actually read and watched this case you would know they are guilty of nothing. Convicting someone based on black clothes and being dumb teenagers is not what we are to do in this or any country. I am tired of reading dumb comments such as yours, they are someones children and loved ones. RUDE!

      August 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • cryssy

      obviously you havent read anything nor paid a bit of attention..one white man and two black men were seen leaving the woods at time of murders..DNA shows the three boys didnt do it..cant you see they were framed cause they were the odd balls in the town..i mean seriously..learn the story dude

      August 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Maybe you need to read up on the story of what happened. They're innocent and Arkansas knows it.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre

      Perhaps you should too; then you can suck as much as you want....

      August 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ladylaw,Esq.

      Nancy Grace, you are incorrect.
      Let me make one thing abundantly clear to all of you who are unsure about what actually took place yesterday.

      I have been following this case from a legal standpoint for many years. I am an attorney.

      This case has numerous deficits associated with the proof submitted at trial on which these boys were "convicted". If they were tried today, there is no way in hell there would have been a conviction. In my humble opinion, I do believe that the 3 boys did not commit this atrocious crime. My greatest disgust lies in 2 points:

      1) That the actual killer is still out there and no other suspects were ever pursued.

      2) That the prosecutor's office clear concern has been to "cover their ass" throughout the pendency of the litigation leading up to the appeals. In other words, no on was willing to reconsider the case because to do so would have been to admit that there was a mistake the first time around.

      Which leads me to my point about the Alford Plea. Why the Alford plea?

      The point of the Alford Plea is simple: by admitting to guilt and pleading that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to convict, possibly, the West Memphis Three have sacrificed their right to sue the State for wrongful imprisonment. IMO, the State wrongfully imprisoned these boys. The bottom line is that they could not in good faith allow Echols to be remain on death row. However, in a new trial, the finding of not guilty was most likely inevitable. A lawsuit probably would have been inevitable. Can you imagine trying to quantify damages for having been imprisoned for 18 years x's 3 men? Staggering. The boys gave up their right to sue the State thereby covering the States Ass for a mistake that cost three men 18 years ebhind bars. That was the intention of the Alford Plea – dont kid yourself about it.

      August 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ladylaw,Esq.

      Grrr...my post above meant to read: "Nancy Grace, you are correct".

      August 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. yneemee

    The only three IINNOCENT boys are the little children who were tortured, killed and thrown in the ditch – the rest is just legal fiction and lawyers run AMOK – I agree that if someone else perpetrated the crime, a trial needs to be held and they need to be held accountable INCLUDING any police or others who lmay have lied BUT if these three changed their plea because there is enough evidence to convict them, that should tell us SOMETHING.

    Rest in peace, children who were brutally murdered.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Simple: if they are innocent and were framed, they can sue for millions. The cops would keep them forever before they'd let that happen. This compromises their case and prevents them from getting any payback. Now, if those cops turned up dead this weekend, we might have to rethink the whole process . . .

      August 19, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • stacy12

      is only so they cant sue the state is the only reason these guys didnt do a thing ok if there is anough evidence to charge them why not have another trial they dont have anything and the only way out for the state is to have sumthing signed so these guys will not sue them

      August 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erin

      When you talk about there being evidence to convict them, you have to put it into context. The evidence the prosecution has convicted them before and upheld their convictions for the last 18 years. It doesn't mean it's good evidence or proof of their guilt, merely evidence that was presented to a jury that convicted them. The plea doesn't say that they evidence is infallible and 100% proves their guilt. It says that they acknowledge that the evidence the prosecution has is capable of convicting them – as was proven 18 years ago. Doesn't mean they did it and actually, given what we now have DNA wise, makes the evidence even more flimsy. But I 100% can understand why these men would have taken the plea given their experience. Most rational people would have looked at the case and seen the truth – these men are innocent. Unfortunately, most rational people figure out how to get out of jury duty.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jack

    wow are courts are messed up for sure

    August 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Max Neptune

      Wow, "our" citizens have terrible grammar!

      August 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Joe

    "Where there are laws, no man gets justice." –Tolstoy

    August 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. zippy

    What am I missing?
    The step-father's DNA would be on his children and likely his children's friends through normal contact. Doesn't mean he did anything sinister.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Would it be on the rope that was used to bind them, though?

      August 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • saffy

      What about the step-father's buddy's DNA found on a tree at the crime scene? The step-father's DNA (hair) was found in a shoestring that was used as a ligature. That's not just coincidental...

      August 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      True, but what of the fact that an eyewitness placed a man matching the stepfather's description covered in blood at a nearby gas station restroom the night of the murders? Do we know for sure that they did not commit the crime? No. But we sure as hell know that there was not proper evidence for a conviction, and that makes them innocent in our justice system, where a person is innocent until proven guilty. Their "trial" was a laughable, modern-day witch hunt, in which such damning evidence as black T-shirts and Stephen King novels were presented as "proof" of the boys' satanism.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lainey

      It would, and in response to "Nancy Grace" there was no rope used, it was the children's shoelaces...

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

      John – the eyewitness to the man covered in blood in the restroom was likely making up a story to get attention. There was never any evidence that such a person existed. In a high profile case like this all sorts of kooks come out of the woodwork. Besides, how would a stranger control three healthy young boys long enough to tie them up?

      My money is on stepdad and stepdad's friend.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bryce

    If I was a father to one of those kids, these men wouldn’t walk free for very long.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Had you even heard of them before today?

      August 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Which men? The cops who stopped hunting the killers so they could just blame some kids and get back to the donut shop? The real killers? In real life, there isn't a clear motive and an obvious killer every time.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bryce

      Who cares, the parents of mutilated boys have.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLeeG

      You should really get the facts before you spout off. There's NOTHING linking them to the killings.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Plenty of us have been watching this case for years. There's been tv coverage, magazine stories, books written. The cops got rid of some kids they hated and showed all the other kids that they held absolute power in that county, and didn't bother investigating their friends and neighbors about some dead children who didn't matter much.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary Jane

      The father of one of the boys (I believe Mr Byers) has been very vocal in his support of these men and believes that they should be completely exonerated.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mike in SA

    Hummmm, wonder what "legal hocus pocus" the victims will get to use...oh, yeah, right...they're DEAD!

    August 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Diana Evans

    Hello!!!!! No DNA!!!!! Where do you find accusation where there is nothing, no DNA nothing to prove guilt. Hey, remember the bloody restroom at the chicken place – all evidence lost. These three are not guilty. Gary Gitchell, you LOST! And thank God Judge Burnett left or these guys would never have gotten another chance. Judge Burnett- you LOST! And to my cousin who performed the lie detector tests – what are YOU thinking now?

    August 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Greg

    Any one that watches the first HBO docs know the step father and his friend did it. The only reason it was not turned over years ago is no one from the State wanted to admit they got it wrong.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      If they admit wrongdoing, the three will sue them and win. Now the three have no civil case but they can escape.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Glad to see someone else thinks the same thing as me. Those 3 men were RAILROADED!!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. NW1000

    On their feet, out the door?

    August 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sorely Frickey

    A mechanism to get closure? For whom? Why not use the normal mechanism - trial in open court? If the state has the convincing evidence agreed to by the defendants in their Alford plea, then the prosecution should never have accepted this arrangement. Your explanation is confused and confusing. Put a real reporter on the job.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Look it up. I'm not your mom. The case goes back years and has had a lot of coverage.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. tom

    This truly is injustice but someday they will be judged by a superior power far greater than any of us.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy Grace

      Read again. They were framed. Read other stories if this one is too hard for you.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim from Toledo

      I agree with your point of view on this, Nancy Grace.....but the fact that use the name Nancy Grace really hurts your credibility.....Talk about a person that goes on witch hunts......

      August 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      You need to read. They were RAILROADED and a "higher power" won't be judging them for anything. They are innocent!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre

      Yeah, really; will you introduce me to this superior power?

      August 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Roger

    I wonder what was the original evidence in this case? I haven't seen what caused the police to arrest them in the first place.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tina

      You should google this. There have been many stories about it, and a couple of tv programs. I'm not saying they did or didn't do it, but they were considered troublemakers in their community at the time.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      What ever the evidence was, it was surely enough to convince 12 adults that these three teens were guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. We just have to accept that as fact.

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

      You can find lots of stuff including the entire trial transcripts with a quick Google search. If you're interested, you can read Devils Knot. Some people think it may be a bit biased, but there is a lot of information in there.

      If I recall correctly, the police had no leads when a local truancy officer (maybe a probation officer, but I don't recall) said in his opinion if any one in town could commit this crime, that Echols would be capable. Also, a ~12 year old girl told her parents that she heard Damien bragging about doing it while at a softball game. The real nail in their coffin, in my opinion, was Jessie's "confession". If you read the transcripts of it and compare them to the other evidence, you'll see that there is no way that confession was valid. Everything he said on his own totally contradicted the evidence, but the police were quick to "correct" his facts.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre

      Original evidence: they were odd teenagers who wore a lot of black clothes; they were not much liked by the police; they were in the state at the time of the killings; there were thoughts, in the public domain, that these kids liked hard rock music and just might be liking Satan... Finally, they were convicted in ARKANSAS!

      The only dumber place in the country for them to be going on trial would be MISSISSIPPI!

      August 19, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Don

    It is amazing how many people are commenting as if these 3 men have got away with something. Any reasonable person who knows of the details of this case is clearly aware they are all 3 innocent. The biggest thing that convinced myself of their innocence is that there were no mosquito bites on these boys who were found naked at the site they were dumped. None of the convicted 3 had a vehicle at the time. IE the little boys were tortured and killed somewhere else.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill in VA

      Yuu don't know all the details either unless you sat in that jury room.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • gia2425

      8 years behind bars for something they didn't do. I watched a special on this story and it was clear that they were innocent.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      We have to accept that there were 12 reasonable persons in the jury room.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Bill, you can read every bit of transcripts from this case (both Jessie's trial and Damien/Jason's trial) on-line. There are several sites dedicated to just posting the "evidence" that was gathered. I've been through all of it, and there's no way they did it. Not even close, IMHO. Go read up and make an educated decision.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Josh, I'm sure that the jury foreman, Kent Arnold, was "reasonable" to when he committed misconduct by discussing the "confession" by Jessie in the jury room. That piece of "evidence" was inadmissible against Damien and Jason. That, IMO, would have been the reason that these guys would have gotten a new trial in December had they not taken this deal to get out now (as opposed to having to sit in jail, in solitary confinement for Damien, until they were acquitted by a proper jury a year (or two or three) from now.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Thanks! Someone out there reads!

      August 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Randy

    Just like the court system to let killers go free and just like they did with Casey Anthoney they all did it

    August 19, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nathan

      The difference this time is that these guys are actually innoncent, so if you're keeping score that's one GUILTY woman who got off with time served and three INNOCENT men who have spent nearly 20 years locked up, it truly is a great system we have here.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Wow some people do not understand how to read the article first.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Wow! You really don't understand the story, do you?

      August 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • EdM

      Judging by your grammar, you're not able to comprehend what happened here.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Diana Evans

      AGAIN!! Why can't people get it through their heads??? No DNA!!! If there had been DNA evidence this case would have been closed LONG ago! But there was NO EVIDENCE!!!

      My SON was the first one to be tagged and fingerprinted in this case. Thank GOD he had a tight alibi!!! When the cops turned this into a witch case, they came to my son because he worn black, died his hair black, and wore Metallica shirts. MY OWN SON could be the one walking out of jail today because of how he looked!!

      These guys have not been proved guilty – evidence led to other people and these cops conveniently lost evidence.

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

      Right, Randy!

      We know you killed Big Abe too...

      August 19, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      I hope you are never accused and convicted of a murder you didn't commit Randy. If it were to happen, your peers might just judge you this harshly.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
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