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. Me

    You lost me at "The."

    August 19, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cameron Truelove


      August 19, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. DG

    Do you have a recent picture of these guys....I don't want them living next to me....and if I see them I would like to know who they are. So I can go the other way!

    August 19, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnny57

      Why it that? Because the were wrongly charged and imprisoned for that crime?

      August 19, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      Really? Get a clue!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chupachabra

      Would you be willing to live next door to Terry Hobbs and his buddy?

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

      seems to me that dna puts the one step father at the scene, along with his pal.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • EdM

      Try doing a LITTLE research before posting something so absurd.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. robert Zuckschwerdt

    Arkansas is just another hick state, we have a lot of them, Utah, permits men to have more than one wife, I could go on and on, these young men have been proven innocent, but the system won't admit they got the wrong people for this murder.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnny57

      You really shouldn't be insulting states, and making false statements about Utah. You showed right there that your comment should be ignored.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. johnny57

    We need to know the name of the prosecutor that was behind these convictions. He should probably be imprisoned for 18 years on a trumped up charge and see how he/she likes it.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      You are so right!

      August 19, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Second Judicial District Circuit Judge John Fogleman was the deputy prosecutor in the original trial. He recently lost a bid for the Arkansas Supreme Court.

      Also, the judge was Judge David Burnet. He was also the judge that ruled on most of their appeals, which really doesn't seem right to me. Burnet was elected to the Arkansas State Senate last year, which, in my opinion, is the only reason that this was able to happen today. Had Burnet not been elected, Damien may very well have died on Death Row.

      I know, it's all messed up. I was born and raised in small town Arkansas and have never lived outside of the state, and even I know this case was messed up from beginning to end.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      You realize the pukes pleaded guilty AND admitted there was enough evidence that they would probably be convicted don't you?

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

      What would you do Matt? You've experience a trial where you were convicted based on no solid evidence but rather pure fear and speculation. You appeal repeatedly and are denied based on the same lack of real evidence. Given the opportunity to get out, what choice do you have? Your only experience is a conviction based on "evidence" that all reasonable and rationale people would have laughed at. Experience tells them regardless of flimsy evidence, they will be convicted. As I see it, they aren't admitting there's enough evidence to convict them, but rather acknowledging that the "evidence" the prosecutors have has convicted them before, regardless of it's validity.

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

    Loyd Jr.....Now that dude just looks guilty with them beedie eyes. But good for them if they didn't do I. Sheesh, I'd Raise HELL if I was innocent and spent 15+ years behind bars. RAISE HELL literally, from out the ground, with demons and fire and everything. Just saying...I'd so Cape Fear the Judge that sentenced me during Movies...Bigtime

    August 19, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Come on, cut the kid some slack. He's the one with a reported IQ of 72. Give him a break, he can't help the way his eyes look.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. doesnt make sense

    THEY PLEAD GUILTY IN 1993!!!!!!!! not just this fake guilty but also innocent thing, they confessed the whole murders with descriptions. it boggles the mind

    August 19, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ash

      Yes with descriptions that did NOT match the facts until after they were coerced. Read the facts about this case moron.

      August 19, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • doesnt make sense

      tell me what on earth would be able to coerce you into the CONFESSION of 3 murders, if you knew you were innocent and had absolutely NO evidence against you

      August 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • doesnt make sense

      If im completely innocent, and thers not one shred of evidence linking me to an accused crime, theres no way im going to confess to the murder. because that makes perfect sense to do that

      August 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Crooked prosecutors love it when people say, "The accused person must be guilty, no matter what evidence is out there, because no innocent person ever confesses!"

      That argument is ridiculous. There are plenty of reasons for innocent people to plead guilty in our criminal justice system. There are times when a prosecutor will threaten to push for the death penalty if a suspect doesn't plead guilty. Or a defendant will be offered a light sentence as part of a plea deal if he or she pleads guilty, whereas if the defendant is found guilty in court, he or she will face a much, much longer sentence.

      There are also times when people will crack after hours of intense interrogation. It may be hard to imagine being in a mental state where you'd admit to a crime you didn't commit, but until you've been in that situation, you don't know how you'd react.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Wow, you are so wrong that I don't know where to start. Jessie gave a coerced confession that was not admissible against the other two. After Jessie was able to confer with a lawyer and realized what he had done (he did have an IQ or 72), he recanted. The other two have always proclaimed their innocence. Do you just type words together because it's fun, or something?

      August 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin in Atlanta

      @doesnt make sense – Innocent people confess to things they didn't do alot in this country. It has nothing to do with common sense or whatever. But it has everything to do with interrogation practices that law enforcement uses to coerce a confessing out of someone.

      Leaving someone in a cold barely lit room with no water, food, or fresh air for 8+ hours while you constantly bombard them with questions they've answered a 100 times already will cause a normal to confess to most anything.

      Read about it, it's very common...sadly...

      August 19, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • pete

      misskelley, who is borderline retarded, was the only one to confess. he did so after being questioned without concil for nine hours. in his confession he makes multiple mistakes as to the what happened to the the three murdered boys and the police correct his mistakes and then he repeats their correction. 18 years of your life.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • EdM

      You also have absolutely no clue what you're talking about.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Snv530

      Your facts are a bit suspect my friend. They did not plead guilty in 1993. One of the boys, Misskelley who was 16 at the time, confessed after a 12 hour interrogation. You need to factor in a few other fun facts before formulating an opinion on this. He is about 5 IQ points above being considered mentally challenged. After 11.5 hours they turned on a tape recorder for only the last half hour when he confessed. His confession was riddled with inconsistencies which did not match the actual evidence at the crime scene. He later refused to testify at the trial of Echols and Baldwin because he had recanted his confession. Oh yeah, also a tasty bit was that the officers had told him he could go home if he confessed. If you watch the footage of the judge talking to the boys please note that he takes extra care to explain what is going on to Mr. Misskelley. Snap judgments based on nothing more than uninformed opinions is what got them into this mess in the first place. Your judgement on their guilt or innocence just proves that this same miscarriage of justice could happen again at any time.

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

      How many convicts appeal , take a plea on a murder charge, and go free with time served? How many were minorities? I';ll tell you...0. This wouldn't fly, almost like FOX news wouldn't fly if they were mionirty ran, talking about the majority the way they talk about minorities. Its life, freedom aint free, it cost us.... our whole lives. I can't wait for the new election, and all the whining from the effects.

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

      Apparently you cannot read. The one was interrogated for 12+ hours and has an IQ that is borderline mental retardation, oh and lets not forget the fact that these were CHILDREN being interrogated. Plenty of people who have confessed have been later exonerated because they were false confessions. I am a former Sheriff's Deputy. Sometimes when people in law enforcement get it in their heads that someone did it – there is no other answer for them and they will interrogate for days if they have to. It might not make sense, but its what happened.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • cee

      one of them gave a coerced confession that was later tossed out because he was mistreated by the cops. the other two have maintained their innocence for 18 years. so maybe you should get your facts straights, doesn't make sense. these 3 were clearly railroaded by an overzealous prosecutors and some backwoods cops who needed to arrest someone. these boys didn't fit into a small, southern Christian town and they paid the price with 18 years of freedom. there has never been any evidence of linking them to these crimes. that's the true crime. not to mention the fact that AK considers this case "closed" and isn't bothering to find the real killer.

      it's also unfortunate that this Alford ruling prevents the WM3 from filing a massive lawsuit against the state of AK and getting every penny they deserve out of this mess.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. q


    August 19, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bill Tyrrell

    IT IS ABOUT TIME!!!! There REALLY IS justice on some occasions in the United States!!!!! Now, how do you give a person back all those years??????? Just sayin'....

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

      They are guilty as HELL!!! You people point out one or two things that MAY help their case and ignore the MOUNTAIN of evidence that they are guilty. Bleeding hearts!!!

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

      @Matt – there is no mountain of evidence against them. But seeing as you think there is, care to share?

      August 19, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mike

    I think after our collective hoorahs for their freedom have subsided! there is going to be a long silent pause as we all ponder and then ignore what has really just happened.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. George Patton

    Don’t feel bad Joey, it's me, doing it. I am a member of the Tea Party; I do it to troll. I guess that’s all us Tea Partiers know since we have nothing worthwhile on our minds!!!

    August 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cult of Personality

    Jason Baldwin looks like he could pass for Bill Gates' son in his present-day photograph...LOL

    August 19, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Steve

    What I don't like about the Alford plea is that it means the family's of the victims and the victims don't get justice. It wipes under the carpet the wrongful conviction, leaves someone guilty in the eyes of the prosecution, and the real killer free. Plus these kids don't need the negative involved with being convicted for murder. Hopefully the Governor or Presidency offers clemency. Hopefully they determine who the real killer is and convict them.

    August 19, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      They already did!!

      August 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jean

    I have no problem living next to them. great

    they are innocent you can see it and they paid the hard price of this unfair circus so please let them be !

    August 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ivan

    Suppose later on someone else is infact proven to have murdered those kids, then what? I would NEVER please guilty to a crime I did not commit even if I had to rot in jail!

    August 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • k

      Where were you half a lifetime ago? Imagine that everything you've experienced and every memory you have since then never happened. Imagine that instead, you've been living in maximum security prison, in a small cell with no freedom and the knowledge that you're probably going to be spending the rest of your life in there.

      Thing is, even as horrible as that is to imagine, it doesn't come close to the real experience of being imprisoned for 18 years. Can you honestly say that if the courts said, "You can leave today if you're willing to admit that we have enough to convict you, even if you did nothing wrong" you wouldn't jump at the chance?

      August 19, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • cee

      Even if your sitting on death row? Even if your wife & child are outside waiting for you? Because that's what Damien Echolls was going through on a daily basis.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Chirsg

    This is BS, they are either quilty or NOT. The state of Tenn., thinks they wont have to pay for wrongful imprisionment. The state is sooooooo wrongt

    August 19, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Well, you may be right about having to pay for wrongful imprisonment at some point in time, but Tenn. will definitely not be the one paying. West Memphis, not Memphis. Being from Arkansas, I wish I could blame this travesty on Tenn. I can't.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • RandomHero

      I can't imagine why the state of Tennessee would have anything to do with a case in West Memphis, Arkansas.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
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