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. Brooke

    Free at last!!! I just hate that they had to plead guilty.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Catherine

    I am a bit confused here. Why is everyone so against this? There wasn't a DNA linke to these men, who where boys when this all started. I think the State didn't have anything new. I think these guys were just ready to get out. But what will happen now? How will they find jobs? What will their lives be like? I don't see this as a win win as the State has presented. I think it is definitely a win for the State. But not so much for the men. If the state thinks these men are guilty, if they really think they killed these little kids, and in this manner, how do they get out of jail with time served? How is that possible? One guy was on death row.I didn't know on death row there was the possibility to get out of jail on time served. I would have held out for a the new trail I was awarded. I think they would've had a better outcome. I hope they didn't hurt their backs when they bent over for the State!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Sherryrae40

    The state offered them a deal because it was very apparent they were going to be granted new trials based on DNA evidence that supports their claim for the last 18 years – they didn't do it!!!! The DNA evidence is hair that belongs to the step father of one of the murdered boys and a friend of his. Also the bite marks on the boys bodies don't match bite patterns of any of the three convicted boys. The state was scared after the Casey Anthony trial.. these boys would likely win.. then the state would A. look stupid for convicting them in the first place.. B. be faced with lawsuits on the length of time its taken to get new trials C. have to try to gather enough evidence to arrest and take the real killers to trial after 18 yrs... This deal was taken by these guys because they've been trying to prove their innocence for the last 18 yrs and its was their best chance at actually leaving the jail and not having to go through another trial (and take the chance with another southern jury)..

    August 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • EWill

      Thanks, that's a good explanation and gives some helpful detail for those of us who aren't familiar with the case. Personally, I can't judge them for taking the plea. After 18 years in jail I'm sure they just wanted to get out ASAP. The evidence against them may be weak, but it got them convicted once and I understand not wanting to risk it again when you have another, albeit imperfect, path to freedom. Sounds like they've been dealt a horrible hand in life and are trying to make the best of it and move on. But there are no winners here, not the men who wrongly spent half their lives in jail and not the families of the victims who know the real killer is probably still out there.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erica

      I'm so glad to hear that they are out of prison, I'm just so disappointed that they still have the aura of guilt hanging over their heads. I'm guessing they took this offer, even though a potential re-trial was on the horizon, because there was no way they were going to gamble with their freedom again– after being wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years by a jury of your "peers", would you take the chance of letting them do the same thing again when you could sign a few forms and go home? I'd take the deal myself.

      August 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tim from Toledo

    Is it just me, or did the film makers of Paradise Lost completely miss the boat when they made "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations"? I personally think they conducted the same type of witch hunt as the original prosecutors....
    Go watch the movie, and tell me that wasn't a witch hunt with John Mark Byers as the target......the funny part, they were dead wrong.......They lost all credibility with me after I watched that film. I hope they don't make the same mistake when they release number 3 (trust me, they will point the finger at Terry Hobbs, right or wrong......I think they are hypocrites).

    August 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kate

    I am so, so sad that they were not found innocent of all charges. I've been following this case for a long time. The only thing these men are guilty of is being strange...and that is not a crime. This is not justice. I'm glad for them, because they are no longer incarcerated. But, this certainly isn't justice.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Andy

    So let me get this straight? They're saying they're not guilty, but the prosecution can prove that they're guilty so they're just going to admit to being guilty even though they're still saying they didn't do it??? Absolutely none of that makes any sense.

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

      What is even more crazy is the fact that the state would allow someone off of DEATH ROW with time served?!? I thought the only way out was death. Clearly the state is trying to save face at the expense of these 3 guys.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Try

      I Agree with Andy!

      August 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Meghan

    There is NO way the prosecution and the state would free a man from DEATH ROW for murdering 3 little boys, if they honestly believed those men (then teens) had committed those murders. This is disturbing on so many levels. It feels like the state is trying to cover its own mistake and trying to prevent those men from having legal recourse!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • All3Allin

      That is EXACTLY what is going on. They don't want to admit that they were beyond wrong, so these 3 will suffer that for the rest of their lives. Luckily, most sane people, capable of critical thinking, KNOW that they are innocent.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. cindy

    HIDE YOUR CHILDREN FOLKS......................

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

      Yes...hide them from the justice system in the southern half of the country, which is clearly biased and wrong.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. USArmyOverLord

    Everyone loses here. 3 kids are dead (without finding the real killer or killers) 3 more kids spent as much time in prison as I have in the Army. Now they are free but have Zero chance of getting a job with convictions on their records. The state loses as well. This case is a horrible example of the flaws in our system. (I still agree with the system overall) The state believes these guys are guilty and will not pursue the real killer.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mel Hogan

    Only a Lawyer would come up with this idea of "Guilty but not guilty". And we wonder why so many innocent people languish in jail. I don't know enough about the case to be happy or sad that they're free, but this Alford plea just seems to be protecting the prosecutor's reputation, not the defendants actual status as guilty or innocent. The judicial system should just admit it screwed up in these cases, and stop creating laws to save face. Ridiculous.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DMan

    What a crock! These 3 did it and should still be in prison.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate, they didn't.

      Did you read the article? Or anything else pertaining to this case?

      August 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      You're not very bright.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      What makes you so sure DMan? Where you there? Sounds like something that might be accepted as a confession of sorts in West Memphis to me. Luckily for you, most of the West Memphis police who prosecuted the original trial and the judge that presided over it have retired – or you might indeed be implicated yourself!

      August 20, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
  12. Irene

    I hope jeremiah and saboth are both fixed so their bloodlines end with them. I looked up ignorant in the dictionary and damn if I didn't find their names. Go back to your videogames in your parents basement. And to james allen, go back to your cubicle, hug a tree and suck-in some smog. None of the three of you could survive without a grocery store, gas pump or cable TV.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Virgo

    The sicko who murdered those three boys is still out there living and breathing everyday. The 3 men who were just released have always been innocent... Let this case remain open and find the DNA match that was at the crime scene!
    John Mark Byers is a sketchy individual who knows more than he lets on! He's had a long history of violence against his family members including little Christopher Byers! Read the facts... The truth is out there.. Bring justice to these three dead little boys!!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mike

    This is a crappy outcome whether they're guilty or innocent. If they're guilty of the crime, it's a travesty that they're walking the streets after torturing and killing three children. If they're innocent, it's a travesty that their lives are forever ruined by a murder conviction... they'll never get jobs or become functioning members of society... unless their records are cleared, their lives are over anyway. So either way this sucks. If the prosecutor believes they are guilty, he should re-try them and keep them in jail for life, and if he believes they are innocent, he should drop all charges. He's a gutless wonder for cooking up this "deal".

    August 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      The prosecutors in this case were a total joke. They made the story stick even though they had very little evidence. You're is god-awful that it ended up this way.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  15. anthony


    August 19, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      NOBODY reads all caps!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
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