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. anthony

    OPPS PART 2 BY TAKING A PLEA DEAL THEY STILL SAY THE ARE GUILY THAT ALLOWS THE STATE TO SAVE THAT MONEY.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      If they are so guilty that a new trial would convict them –then why not keep them in jail–it is not as if the state is not reimbursed court costs and fees on capital crimes by the Federal gov.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      @QueenBee The others agreed to the deal to plead this way because waiting any longer would of ended up in Damien recieving the lethal injection this fall. They did it to spare his life from wrongful execution based on absolutely zero evidence. There were 6 victims in this case. The three young children and then the wrongfully prosecuted / witch hunted young men now finally seeing the light of day. Its a travesty that those responsible for this are getting off the hook. The murderer, the over zealous crappy police department and the overzealous gormless prosecutor.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Norm

    Another sign of the end times.
    This too was written in Revelations.
    Satan truely walks the earth in these last days.
    The news professes his power on a 24/7 basis now.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bernie

      blah blah you can say that about ANY era of human civilization

      August 19, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • jack

      humbug

      August 19, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just a Minute

      For centuries, someone has taken some event and heralded it as having all the signs of the end of times. Here, you have a kid who was coerced into admitting guilt for a crime the three might not have done. Personally, I think they should have pushed to have their record cleared, but I'm no lawyer. Yet another old conviction undermined by DNA evidence. It says more about the prosecutors than the supposed presence of satan.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheWiz71

      Read up on the 14th Century – the Black Death, mass collapse of civilization, even more rampant war than now. Sorry, but people have been saying "the end is near" forever. We are in the last age of the earth, but that doesn't mean everything's going to come to a head tomorrow.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • End of times

      @ Norm

      So its the end of times because they are now claiming Guilty? Or was it the end of times when the murders were committed?

      I'm just wondering because I feel like someone is always claiming the "End of Times".

      August 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      Also, the book is called "Revalation."
      No "S."
      I'm sure you knew that though.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • coder

      the DA isnt even looking for the actual murderer
      he's just worried about his record
      its appalling that he has the power of an attorney – and uses that power as a weapon
      every citizen of arkansas needs to be worried about their safety – you may think you have rights – but really, you dont

      August 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      Norm, do you think if a bible fell out of the sky and hit you in the head, that it would knock any sense into you?

      August 20, 2011 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. Frank

    These miserable criminal are guilty. They were found guilty by a jury and 18 years later they agreed to plea guilty. They cannot do so and maintain innocence. They should be in prision for life. they are and remain convicted felons who committed a horrible crime, the killing of an innocent child.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bernie

      you didn't read the article

      August 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chance

      Reading comprehension isn't your strong suit, is it.

      Maybe pop by wikipedia and type in "West Memphis Three"

      August 19, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Yeah, that is great and all. One problem with your assertion. THEY DIDN'T ACTUALLY DO IT. Watch "Paradise Lost" and then tell me if you think they are still guilty. These boys never should have been in prison in the first place. It is a tragic, disgusting example of a failed justice system.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • emma

      There has more than one child murdered and there is evidence thet points to someone else: READ THE ARTICLE BEFORE YOU COMMENT please.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guilty?

      @Frank

      Do you have evidence that they are guilty? Because there isn't any that i know of, and there really wasn't when they were convicted.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Neeneko

      Yeah.. a jury of people who thought they were satanists right in the middle of a moral panic about satanists, and were fed a pile of fake evidence while the step father who did kill them walked free.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • W Miller

      Frank, were you there to see the evidence 18 years ago? People are convicted everyday for things they didn't do and you have over zealous prosecutors wanting to end a case because these guess stood out. 18 years of technology finally caught up to this case and the evidence doesn't connect these guess to the killings. after 18 years in prison and the the thought of dying there would make most people admit guilt so they could see the light of day outside of prison walls. I see right through you and you would do the same thing to get out of prison and don't say you wouldn't.
      How do you explain the hair of one of the kids relatives being on a log in the woods? You will say these three guys went into a house grabbed it out of one of the guys hair brushes and place it at the scene, right?

      August 19, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • rodney

      Obviously, not a defense attorney and or the prosecutors of the case. But from what I know is that The stepfather or boyfriend of one of the victims is the perpetrator. The only reason for these kids being picked out is because the vicious nature of the killings, which does not imply Satanic killing and the fact that one of the kids was a Wiccan, which also if you were to read about this religion it has nothing to do with ritualistic killing. These kids were scape goats from a bubbled hick investigation in which a coerced plea was done by a mentally challenged suspect.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Maybe you should sit in prison for 18 years. Bet you'd be crying to be set free.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Chance

    The only "Satan" involved in this whole ordeal Norm are the people who prosecuted and convicted these boys because they weren't good, Southern-Fried Christians involved in the Satanic Panic.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rotorhead

    For all who feel justice was done here...google Misskeller v.Ark, 323 Ark. 449 (S.Ct. Ark 1996) and Echols v. Ark., 326 Ark. 917 (S.Ct. Ark 1996) and see if you feel so sure then. These sadistic monsters have gotten away with horrible murders of children...it's always easy to challenge evidence 18 years down the road...Echols and Baldwin should have gotten to dance with Mr. Sparky. BTW...a jury convicted them...not the State.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • dan

      What they should have gotten was the opportunity to challenge the evidence 18 years ago in a fair trial. BTW...a jury convicted based on a fraud of a trial and investigation conducted by the state.

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

      Actually it was one of the step fathers, this has been known for over a decade. But so many political careers were made (and kept) due to this trial that heads would roll if the massive misconduct was allowed to be examined in a new trial.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mary

    This was a horrible time and I remember it well. The overall feeling at the time was that they were guilty. Now, I'm not so sure. I understand what is happening better after this article – that they did not plead guilty, but said that prosecutors probably have enough to convict. Since there has been so much time since the trial, prosecutors may have a more difficult time prosecuting them. It leaves a very unsettling feeling because were they guilty or innocent? We'll never know.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bayousara

    This is how things are and ever will be in the Sowth. So sad those kids didn't get total justice.

    I think our jails will soon empty out with these kinds of pleas.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Your thinking.... it's flawed.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      Alford Pleas have been around for over 40 years. I doubt very much we're suddenly going to see a rash of them.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Patrick Brown

    What a ridiculous verdict. How can you say you are innocent but the state has enough evidence to prove you guilty? If the state has enough evidence why agree to a plea?

    August 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      It's not that the state *has* enough evidence. It's that you're afraid they do. Or...in this case...it's the fastest way out of prison.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      Oh...I should have said "you're afraid they have enough pseudo-evidence to convince a jury that desperately wants to find *someone* guilty.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mary

    I reallly hate it when people denigrate the south because of stereotypes. I'm sure there has NEVER been a questionable trial in the north.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carla

      Absolutely NOT! Now go tend to your husband (uncle/brother/cousin/dad) Earl.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tracy

    I have been following this case following this case for many years, I have believed these boys were innocent from the first time I looked at the evidence. Unfortunately even though I think they are innocent, would I let them near my kids, no. The reason being is that police haven’t found the real killer, or at least Arkansas is refusing to go after the real killer. I believe it is because if they do convict someone else that will open the door for the WM3 to sue. Sad that money is more important than justice. It is sad because for the rest of their lives, trying to get a job or what have you… they will be denied for the same reason I wouldn’t want to be around them. There is still just that little bit of doubt. It is all fine and good they are free and I am happy for them. I just hope Arkansas will get off their butts and do something to find the real killer and not just settle for not being sued. On another note, if they were really guilty and the state knew that they would get another conviction, they wouldn’t of offered this BS plea. To bad it isn’t possible for the population of Arkansas to sue the courts for putting people in danger…. After all didn’t the court just admit they knew the WM3 are guilty of these horrible crimes but they are letting them go? Issue of public safety? I mean if the coffee is to hot and the person with the coffee gives it to you knowing it can burn you….. just saying. I don’t want these guys to go back to jail, but I wish they could have been completely cleared and not have to have this hang on them for the rest of their lives….. sorry for the ramble

    August 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      "would I let them near my kids, no. The reason being is that police haven’t found the real killer, or at least Arkansas is refusing to go after the real killer."

      What the heII?

      August 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Margroks

    Knock off the end times nonsense; I'm sick or hearing it.

    I don't understand how they can let these monsters loose when they HAVE enough evidence to convict them! This isn't closure-it's giving three nasty criminals a pass on what they did! THe prosecuter should be ashamed.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      They dont ahve enough evidence to convict them, the boys took the deal to spare Damien the death penalty which was to be carried out before the end of this year. The justice system offered them that deal in order to cover their asses and save money. They know they dont have any real evidence and they know they let the real killer(s) skate for years. Every single one of those officers and the prosecutors should be fired.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. CC28

    All of your comments are ridiculous (with the exception of Tim from Toledo). You don't have a CLUE what "really" happened in this case. All you know is what Hollywood wants you to, since they've decided to take this case on as one of their "causes". There's WAY more here than meets the eye. The true "backwards" one is you, James Allen, for making such an inflammatory statement about an entire state. It just goes to show who the "real" ignorant one is, though.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      Every piece of evidence given in the case at the time of the trial has been readily available from the get go. The only evidence they ever had was these boys didn't fit in with the rest of the town, they listened to metal music, one of them was an experimenting wiccan, and the other was mentally challenged. Thats it. There was not one real peice of credible peice of evidence ever. No witnesses, no DNA, none of them had vehicles, and not even a weapon was found. Nothing. They were conviced on Zero evidence. It was a witch hunt by a fear mongering power hungry group of police officers and prosecutors.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Liz is 100% correct.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      Yup...I agree. Liz is 100% correct.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. concerned reader

    U.S. Justice sucks!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sassy

    Bottom line, they can't sue for false imprisonment. That's what that plea is for.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. HBar

    I get it! Plea bargaining doesn't violate the fifth amendment because you're not incriminating yourself when you're forced to plead guilty so you can go free!

    It all makes sense now! Thanks for explaining that!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
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