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. James Allen

    what a crock! If they are not guilty - new DNA evidence - why mar them for the rest of their lives - well, because the state doesn't want to have to pay them for injust incarceration! I hope these three boys/men sue the hell out of the "great" state of Arkansas! Like people in that state have any sense! Backward bumpkins!!!

    August 19, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim from Toledo

      Nice comment – trash every person in the state. Makes wherever you are from look bad......

      August 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • baller23

      It's not that they are not guilty. Because the prosecution still has enough evidence against them to convict them beyond a reasonable doubt. So the new evidence allows for them a new trial, which they have a right to, but it doesn't mean that they are innocent. For the prosecution its more about saving time and money, and for the defendants it's about not having to take the risk of having to spend the rest of their lives in jail.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • SCOTTY

      I woud to commit on James Allen commit. I'm from Arkansas and I didn't think they did it. The people here are no different then any other state. Yes, the state is and has coveredc their butts on this matter and it is wrong what they have done to the 3 men. They were wrong in 1993 and again they are wrong for what they did today. I think the state or any other state should pay for putting someone in prison that is innocent. And I'm NOT a BACKWARD BUMPKIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Monica

      Why don't you read the whole article? Or did you read it and missed half of it somehow? Because of the DNA, they have a right to go to trial – their decision, not the state's, it's their decision if they want new trial or not. No one can force them to go through it or not. So, instead of going to trial, THEY ARE CHOOSING not to go to trial, for some reason they don't want their names cleared....or....they know they would lose because they are guilty. There might not be enough DNA collected from the crime scene at this point to make a positive – legally valid – decision, they really don't say in this article what's the problem with DNA.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lucas

      They probably did this because it got them out now, rather than another 3, 5 or 10 years from now. With the corresponding legal fees, that is a huge and expensive gamble to make. The Alford may have been misused, because from all reports, the state does not have sufficient evidence to reconvict, but it gave them the opportunity to be free today, albeit with the stigma of a guilty-ish plea. Who can blame them? They have already had 18 years of their lives stolen by a bigoted and laughably inadequate trial and investigation.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      baller, do you really believe that? I think it's much more likely that the state knows that they don't have any grounds to convict and took this as an opportunity to save face (and lots of $$ and bad national publicity). I think that the defense lawyers knew that the state would jump at the chance to clear this in a way that they can spin in a positive way, so they presented it as an option to their clients and the prosecutors.

      Damien, who has been in solitary confinement for 10 years, took the deal without even thinking (I can blame him). Jessie (the poor guy with the 72 IQ) also agreed to the deal. Jason, on the other hand, didn't want to take the deal. He wanted to continue to fight for his innocence, but he stepped up and did a very honorable thing. He took the deal to get Damien off of death row and Jessie out of prison. All of this came out in the post proceedings press conference. If it's on line, you should watch it. It was possibly one of the most moving things I've ever seen.

      Lucas, you are exactly right. I'm not a lawyer, but from all I've read on the Alford plea, it was definitely misused in this case for the benefit of both the WM3 and the State. What I am trying to figure out, though, is how they were able to enter a plea when there were no charges currently against them. I may just be ignorant of how things work, but they were convicted of the charges against them, and there were no new charges filed (i.e. no new trial ordered yet). Seems like they put the cart before the horse to me to get it over with.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Roger Ford

      James, the prosecution presented compelling evidence enough that even the defendants would throw down for a guilty plea. Remember they were tried as a group of 3,and having enough evidence to place all 3 people there is not as easy to fudge up as just 1 defendant.

      I donot beleive their innocence. Just another sham in unconfirmed DNA evidence reaching back 18 years to let these monsters out on a technicality.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Roger, you are incorrect. There were two trials, one for Jessie Miskelley and one for Damien and Jason. Jessie was screwed from the start because he gave a "confession". I'm not sure how you can take a 45 minute long confession from a 16 year old with an IQ of 72 who was questioned without council or parent in an interrogation room for over 12 hours and thought that he would be released with no consequences seriously, but I wasn't on the jury.

      In the other case, there really was no compelling physical evidence at all presented. I think the closest thing I've seen was that a liquor bottle that Damien had been seen drinking from was found on the side of the freeway near the Robinhood woods area. If you know of any more real evidence, please let me know. I can't find any.

      The real problem for Damien and Jason was the the jury foreman had prior knowledge of Jessie's confession, a confession that wasn't admissible in Damien and Jason's trial, and used that to persuade the other jurors to convict. That's just wrong.

      But, really, since you know the case, please let me know what evidence (other than hearsay and fear of the occult) was presented against them that proved beyond doubt that they did it.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. cryssy

    @ gia2425 ..more like 18 years for a crime they didnt do..they are grown men now..its all tragic..now its jus time for the past to stay in past and really enjoy the freedom they have today and every day after

    August 19, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jeremiah

    I was 4 when this happened sooooo I don't care.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Illuminati

      idiot!

      August 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saboth

      Yeah me either. F every world war, slavery, the cradle of civilization, the civil rights movement, classical music and everything that happened before I was born. All I care about is what happens to Snookie in Italy.

      August 19, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • RexCraigo

      Consider suicide.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • John C

      Second on the Idiot comment. Have you not empathy. Do you know what empathy is?

      August 19, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      Wait, what happened to Snookie in Italy? AHHHHH!!!

      August 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Can you really be that ignorant?

      August 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      ... then why comment at all?

      Attention seeking?

      August 20, 2011 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
  4. Saboth

    Wow, their entire life thrown away and they weren't even guilty. So now they are close to 40, have no education, no ability to get a job, and no compensation for being falsely accused of a crime they didn't commit, simply because they were "strange boys" that listened to "metal music". Also, spending close to 20 years in prison from the teen years onward is sure to have ruined them socially and psychologically (meaning they won't be able to relate to family or society in general).

    August 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Monica

      If they were innocent, they wouldn't take any kind of plea and they'd go to trial to clear their name. Also, you can any kind of education you want in prison.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • jacob cob

      Yes all base on a "confession" from Jessie Miskelley who has an IQ of about 65, he first confessed to the police that they did it @ a time and day when they were all in school, until they swayed him to change the time and day.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saboth

      I don't know about that. If I had spent 20 years in prison and the state said "Ok, we are giving you a choice: you can go free immediately if you agree, but you will have a criminal history BUT this whole ordeal will be over; OR you can get a new trial to try and prove your innocence, but we swear we have enough evidence to probably convict you." I think I might go for option 1.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jerry

      monica, they DID go to trial and got railroaded despite NO EVIDENCE against them. A confession from a mentally handicapped teen who got none of the facts right in his confession does not count. This "deal" was the state of Arkansas way of saying, we screwed up. This the easiest way to get you out now. You can clear your name later. You've suffered enough for having been guilty of nothing.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      Minica they did.. and they stayed there for 18 years... thats the point.. I think they are over it by now...

      August 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. willow

    jeremiah would you care if it were your brother who was murdered? would you care if it were you who was wrongly accused and spent your entire formative adult years incarcerated facing the death penalty? I don't even live in your country.. and I care. I care about lives, innocence lost.. injustice. I care for those 3 precious boys who died so violently and tragically; and I care for 3 innocent boys who have spent 1/2 their lives in hell. Compassion... you need some.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      Not facebook so no 'like' button, but can I just say, Willow – I am liking the sh!t out of this post.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  6. vfr800cr250

    What's really ridiculous here is that this offers the state a way to avoid having to do any real work like actually solving the crime. The work's already been done. The DNA evidence is available and the state is still too lazy to bother doing the work. Just one more indication that the US is well on it's way to 3rd world status.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      @vfr800: Wait a minute, now.. Arkansas has always been kinda third-worldish. Doesn't mean the whole country is.. 😉

      August 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      did you really just say Arkansas has always been kind of third-worldish and you live in Oklahoma ....... really??? really??? you live in Oklahoma....

      August 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Monica

    Huh? So the DNA was not a match, therefore they could go to trial, yet, they took this plea? Why? If they could be cleared of all charges as they maintain they're not guilty, why would they do this? And if the prosecution has enough info to convict them despite the negative DNA match, how are they innocent, why are they letting monsters out of jail? This article is incomplete.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • jacob cob

      People take pleas all the time, once the facts are laid out as to what can happen if they don't take a plea and the jury finds them guilty, innocent people take pleas ALL THE TIME!

      August 19, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jerry

      YOU are incomplete. They took the deal because they can still fight to clear their names, but from the outside. Echols was on DEATH ROW. If you can't figure out why they took the deal, you are mental midget. Baldwin actually refused at first to accept this deal, but did so because Echols was on death row scheduled for execution. If they got railroaded again at the final appeal, that was it, you numbnut. All of the evidence points away from them except for the coerced testimony of a mentally handicapped person who even in his confession had contradictions to the facts.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • EWill

      If I understood correctly, the reason is that while the DNA might eliminate them as suspects, there may still be other evidence which could suggest them as suspects. If all the evidence and witnesses were readily available they could go to trial and seek acquittal, but so many years after the fact it would be virtually impossible to retry the case. Someone with more knowledge of this can correct me if I'm wrong.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carter

      I agree, if you've not kept up with this case, the article is incomplete. However, they agreed to this to GET OUT OF JAIL. And, whether the prosecution has enough to convict is really in doubt – if they did, do you really think the State would allow them to walk? Doubt it.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott Longman

      You people on here that are popping off about these men being guilty obviously know nothing about this case. Just go read the definitive book on the case called "Devils Knot" by Mara Leveritt. This was another case of bad police work, missed leads, a forced "confession" that was so full of holes it was ridiculous, a prosecutor that was about to run for office, a judge who was so corrupt he met with the prosecutors during trial in secret to give them information, locals who were lying to get media attention, and a jury that took part in serious misconduct. This started out as a classic case of forced confession; a kid put in a room for 18 hours with out his parents present or notified, he has an IQ that is so low that he is borderline retarded, they didn't record the "confession" until the end of the 18 hours and the recording was spliced together from different moments. In addition the confessed got everything wrong from the time of the murders to the way the kids were killed to the clothes they were wearing. He was promised a reward in the form of a new pick-up truck if he helped the officer with a confession and that same officer was later prosecuted and fired for corruption. That same police department was later investigated by the justice department for shaking down drug dealers and truck drivers passing through West Memphis. The lawyers who represented the defendants had never tried a murder case and had no money or resources to call expert witnesses. The boys had rock solid alibis. The last person to see the three murdered boys was the step-father of one of them, Terry Hobbs, who was known to be extremely violent and abusive had a pedophile living with him at the time of the murders, and those two men were never even interviewed by the police. And the most important evidence was never brought to trial... the fact that NONE OF THE DNA FOUND ON THE BODIES OR AT THE SCENE belonged to any of the accused but did match TERRY HOBBS AND HIS CONVICTED PEDOPHILE FRIEND. There are thousands of stories of juries getting it wrong and convicting innocent men and this is just the latest in a long line of wrongful convictions that could happen to me or you both. Oh and about not admitting guilt, THEY DID NOT EVER ONCE TO THIS DAY ADMIT GUILT. NOT ONCE. Even Jesse Miskelly withdre his "confession" once he understood that he had been used. You go sit on death row for 18 years for something another man did and then tell me how you wouldn't take this deal that allows you to get out of prison. LIVE FREE AND HAPPY GUYS!!! WE LOVE YOU!!!! Now, somebody in Arkansas please go find the real killers that have been walking free and probably killing other kids for the last 18 years.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. clarke

    Well, I am not sure about anyone else, but I am having a hard time wraping my brain around this one. Maybe it's the way the article was written.

    August 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jacob cob

    The headline should read "How were these people ever convicted" and to answer the question how can they walk free, well there's one reason, the NEVER committed this horrible crime.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Barb

    They are guilty. Convicted once by a jury and guilty by their own admission 18 years later. Leave them in prison for life. They committed a heinous crime and deserve life imprisonment.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • D

      Can you actually read? Who posted that for you?

      August 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • D

      Btw...if you are really using the confession as your reasoning. I hope you know they interrogated a kid for 12+ hours, overnight, only 45 minutes was taped so lord knows what they did to him, without a lawyer...oh yeah...the kid has an IQ of 70 I believe, which is on the cusp of mental retardation.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      You are an illiterate moron.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • drinqns

      WRONGLY convicted by that jury

      August 19, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Really? Are you serious? Read and learn lady!

      August 19, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • EdM

      You're allowed to vote in this country, aren't you? Sad.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ziggy

    Something doesn't add up, whether its the article or the actual facts. If you look into this case deeper there are so many pieces of evidence linking one of the boys there yet there is evidence linking someone entirely different. At the end of the day 3 young innocent boys were tortured and killed. Its always going to be a tragic tale

    August 19, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. D

    Curious what the evidence is, has to be somewhat convincing. I mean in 2011, no DNA match, there is no conviction. That's just the way it is.

    Based on my understanding of the case, I feel they are innocent and were absolutely railroaded, but I am definitely curious what the evidence is and why they wouldn't go to trial.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • ChrisG

      I keep asking myself that, too, but they'd already been railroaded once by a system they trusted. If it came to the same conclusion in the next trial, which probably would've taken a very, very long time (and who's to say Damien would've lived that long), they'd never have a chance of getting out.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      Yeah, you know, it is so easy to say that you'd fight to the death for your good name...but, you're not sitting in prison. I would like to think that I would have the stones to stay in jail unless the verdict was overturned. But, I don't know that I would.

      I can see what you're saying, though.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mike rose

    who says they're not guilty?
    a standard of law?

    ask the da he'll tell you they are GUILTY AS SIN
    I quote
    'they did admit the prosecution probably has enough evidence that it would lead to their conviction'

    I find them guilty...they did it...the courts are soft here in the usa...and the lawyers work hard to free them regardless of their innocence or guilt

    August 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jerry

      You are an ignorant putz.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Mike, you must be brain dead.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Chevis Regal

    Closure for who? Were the families of the murdered boys asked what they thought of this? Sad all the way round.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • kelli

      The mother of Stevie Branch and both the biological and adopted fathers of Chris Byers all believe that Damien, Jessie and Jason are innocent.
      Byers' adopted father is actually against this outcome, not because he believes they're guilty, but because he believes they should be cleared of all charges.
      I haven't seen a statement from Moore's parents.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PHIL

    @Barb
    Read up on the case before making accusations. They're innocent.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
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