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. Bill

    Polygraph all 3, lets see what the results are.

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

      They've been polygraphed to hell and back. How can you think that a polygraph is somehow more reliable than DNA evidence?

      August 19, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Polygraphs are less reliable than the weatherman... you'd gain as much insight by flippping a coin.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      There is no statistical evidence that polygraphs can detect lies when simple questioning cannot.

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

      Polygraphs are worthless witchcraft. DNA is exact. It's lucky these guys didn't get railroaded in my hometown, Dallas, TX, they'd gone to death row and Rick Perry would have fried them for breakfast by now. Innocent people go to prison here all the time. As Stalin said...society is better off if 100 innocent people go to prison than for one criminal to remain free.

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

      waterboarding is better then polygraphing. Let the games begin.....

      August 19, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Polygraphs are garbage.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • adam

      You do know that a polygraph is not only easy to fool with a small amount of legwork, but its also not admissible in court right?

      August 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Redweed

      And, now that they pled guilty, they can't sue the state of Arkansas for screwing up. Which it did. Not proud of being an Arky today. Not proud at all.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jason

    They were found guilty and served 18 years for murder. I don't see what the big deal is. If they were in fact guilty, I feel that the punishment has been served, and these men have spent enough time in a cell on the tax payer's expense. Hopefully everyone can move on with their lives

    August 19, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      "Hopefully everyone can move on with their lives" – what kind of ignorant moron tells the parents of the boys who were murdered to move on? Either empathize or shut the hell up.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dracorat

      Agreed. Add the ten year suspended sentence and they have ten more years of incentive not to screw up. Move on.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      Jason, you are an effin' idiot and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • d

      or they didnt do it and you hillbilly state just locked up 3 innocent kids for 18 years. fell good about that???

      August 19, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Orlando

    This is not want an Alford Plea means at all. Please, get your facts right before your broadcast falsehoods, making the justice system look bad!

    August 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      What is the difference between and Alford plea and the story's description of it? All I know is what I read here and on Wikipedia.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • nateD2000

      So what is the difference? Dont speak it if you arent going to explain.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    What now? Case closed. I am glad they are free. But if you ask me, this only lets the prosecution off the hook. And to the families of the vicitms, this only means that a killer still walks free, and worse, he can never be tried for thier crimes. The only option, is to RETRY with new evidence! I know it's a lot of work, will cost a lot of money, and may well tarnish the reputations of those at the middle of this boondoggle. Shame on the state for allowing this.
    Justice has not been served here folks. It's been avoided.

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

      How much more money do we want to waste re-trying and re-incrcerating these three? It no wonder we're broke.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    I did not write the first post above, although it has my name. I have not real all of the posts, but this is my first on this topic.

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

      Don't feel bad Joey, they do this to me too. I wonder if it's not the same Tea Partying troll doing it to both of us. I guess that's all these Tea Partiers know since they have nothing worthwhile on their minds!!!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    "Not read," not "not real."

    August 19, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jim

    Whether these men did it or not they are now free. Three children were still murdered. This deal may have been a mechanism for closure for the living, but what about justice for the dead. Somewhere, there is a gruesome murderer(s) of innocent children living life without any consequences for their horrible crime. That can't sit well for any of us.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. blah999

    I don't get it. So they're sooo guilty that they're actually not guilty?

    I'm pretty sure guilty is guilty. And if you're guilty then you go to jail.

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

      Did you read the article at all? They have been in prison for eighteen years for a crime they didn't commit. One of them was on death row. They were offered a chance to get out and try to put their lives back together and they took it. I don't blame them one bit. The person (or people) who murdered those children spent eighteen years walking the streets while these three men paid for the crime. Someone was definitely guilty in this situation – the murderer, the prosecutors, the jury and everyone else involved with putting the three behind bars.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • d

      unless of course you were already in jail serving time for the past 18 yrs after being found guilty for a crime that got thrown out meaning legally you were not guilty for 18 yrs, you were just, uhh, well, in limbo. so now you get to plead guilty to a crime you were found guilty of and served 18 yrs for, but legally you are not guilty? so now you are released, serving 10 years parole for a crime you didn't commit but pled guilty to. My head hurts!!!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Liss

    There is something very strange about this case. They claim they are innocent, and on the other side of their mouths, they fully acknowledge the State has enough evidence to convict them. They state the DNA points to a different individual, and yet they claim the guilty parties are still out there? How can anyone expect any justice for these murdered boys? Who is going to prosecute anyone else when they have admitted themselves there is enough evidence to convict them? The fact remains that there are 3 little boys who were tortured and murdered and if they are not guilty of these crimes, there may be somebody else who is not being punished for their crimes. If they are guilty, then they only served 6 years for each child and that is not justice either. It is a terrible tragedy, and just because there are celebrities who claim they are innocent, does not mean that is true either. This does not resolve the case either. For those who believe they are innocent this is not justice and for those who believe they are guilty justice was not served. They are still convicted felons. It would be nice for the families involved to really know the truth and be secure that the outcome is correct.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      You are correct: if you think they are innocent or you think they are guilty, this is a miscarriage of justice (unless you think 18 years in prison is sufficient).

      However, just because a prosecutor can convince a jury to convict you, it does not mean his evidence is any good. After all, how many people have been freed after years in prison when new evidence proves they were innocent all along? If you were facing 20 years in prison for a crime you did not commit and your lawyer advised you that the prosecutor was almost certain to win, would you plead guilty to shave 10 years off your sentence? Years ago, the governor of Illinois suspended capital punishment because more people on death row had been proven innocent than had been executed.

      The ability of a prosecutor to convict you does not mean you actually committed a crime.

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

      The only way they could be released was to admit that the state had enough evidence to find them guilty. They did not have to plead guilty to murder. Bottom line here is the state knew a re-trial was coming and that most likely these guys would be found innocent, becaue there is no proof they comitted the murders. If found innocent, they could sue for millions of dollars. This agreement simply lets the state save some face and avoid being sued.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • d

      all this deal is about, is making sure the state couldn't get sued and the prosecutor got a win. that's all. prosecutors no longer care about justice, only convictions. why do you think the states fight when new evidence comes to light in cases? they don't want to be proven that they got it wrong.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joe

    The murders of children are sad. Horrible. And I don't know if these guys are innocent or guilty. If they are guilty, I think we can agree what should be done. But I am a little over the middle class media vigilantes who love to rattle cages over these selective news stories, yell "outrage!" when things happen other than what they expected, which is often spun through the media... while at the same time, so many of us are consumerists of goods and services that cause equally detestable and horrific outcomes to children all over the world. Yet, we keep on tugging along, pointing our fingers and watching our televisions. Sometimes, I think our obsession with justice is a way to make us feel better about ourselves.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cmac12

      Joe... not even sure where to begin. First of, it would be "many of us are CONSUMERS" not "consumerists"... which immediately tells me the level of intelligence I'm dealing with here. Second, can you tell me exactly what it is I'm consuming that's causing, "detestable and horrific outcomes to children all over the world"? I'd really love to know.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Cmac, Webster's dictionary offers the word "consumerist" as a noun related to the theory of "consumerism" which now presents a quandary in dealing with you: You don't know how to use the internet to fortify your views before shaping an opinion on something so simple as a word (that you use to determine how stupid I am), so how can your views be relied upon?

      Now for the 2nd part, I have no idea what you consume. But in the United States, we enjoy a lot of goods and expect cheap prices. We are the #1 consumers in the world. Our ability to satisfy both the expectation and the statistic comes from a variety of sources largely related to the exploitation of lesser educated and defenseless people. I'll offer you two topics you can start your enlightenment journey with: sweat shops and blood diamonds. Enjoy!

      August 19, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      And if the first proof wasn't enough for you, Cambridge dictionary offers a definition for the word anti-consumerist: "opposed to the idea that people should be able to buy an unlimited amount of goods, and to the effect that such freedom has on the physical and social conditions in which people live." You can't have anti-consumerists without consumerists 🙂

      August 19, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      Perhaps you can find an 'anticonsumerist' news article to vent on then. Don't see how being outraged about innocent men being locked up has to mean that people can't be outraged about sweat shops and blood diamonds. I own a total of 3 diamonds (which are probably just diamond chips as they are quite small) all of which reside in my engagement ring. I have not purchased many brands (particularly well known sports brands) for YEARS as I have been opposed to the treatment of the people that actually make the clothes bearing these brands. That does not make me a Saint, but I would like to think that I have a pretty sound moral compass.

      How did you find out about this case? Did you see something on your mass produced, cheaply made tv? Search the web on your production line computer (that will probably be so out of date in 5 minutes that you'll have to purchase another one) or did you read it in a newspaper, thereby causing trees to be cut down? Everyone has their soapboxes, find the forum that matches yours.

      August 20, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  11. Roger

    don't understand why echols is still alive if he recieved the death penalty and the other two should serve their life sentence and be done with it...sounds like they are turning three creeps loose on society yet again

    August 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Really? Are you being serious? You are incredibly ignorant about the whole story. Read and get a clue.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Brian

    Is this country over-lawyered? William F Buckley liked to say "America has 70% of the world's lawyers. " Someone corrected him, we have only 69% of the world's lawyers.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris R

      Cute quote but untrue. There are around 1.1 million lawyers in the US. There are 950K in India alone. So you'll have a tough time getting to 70% or even 50%.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  13. George Patton

    It's always a terrible thing to send someone to prison, especially if they're innocent. Not everyone who gets convicted in a U.S. court of law is guilty while a lot of truly guilty people get acquitted. I hope that if these men are truly innocent, that the state compensates them and find the real culprit or culprits.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Case closed General. The state has nothing more to do with this case.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jim

    I'm sure the three made this deal because the chickens**t state of Arkansas would just screw them the same way it did the first time.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. conradshull

    In other words, they did it.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
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