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. Suval

    This is sick! If these guys were African American or any other minority, they would spend the rest of their lives in prison. Southern Law and Southern racism being what it is ,maybe this was to be expected. It is still SICK!

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

      Bull! If they were African American, they would have the NAACP fighting for them and get them off even though they were 100% guilty. Effin' NAACP!!!

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

      A National Disgrace. But cheers from southerners! Morons, all

      August 19, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joshua Ludd

      Outside of it being 18 years too late... how is it sick to free innocent men? And yes.. they are innocent.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob F

      So-called "White Trash":

      1) Economically, legally, socially and politically disadvantaged like minority groups,
      2) Generally despised by other whites and minority groups

      It's twice as hard as being a minority, Suval...

      August 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • StevenB

      If they were minority defendants, they would have already been executed.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darwin

      Oh, here we go. Seriously? Were you a slave? Was your dad a slave? Was you grandfather, or even you great grandfather a slave? Get over yourselves already! Many slaves were treated so well that they continued to work for their "owners" even after they were freed. And another thing, the "white man" didn't just go to Africa and "take" people. (Although it did happen that way in some cases) Many times they were sold to them by other Africans. You didn't get pulled over because you're black. You got pulled over because you were going 100 in a 55, in a stolen car, fleeing from the 7-11 you just robbed, or the white woman to just r@ped. If you want someone to blame, try blaming your fellow African Americans that are giving you a bad name. Stop playing the "Race Card" (oh yeah, you do it so often that there's even a name for it) and take some accountability for your actions as an individual.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMazz

      These guys are so guilty when you look objectively at the evidence not emotionally. The real victims are the three young boys who died in such a horrific way.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Dob Bole

    The important thing is that the prosecutors and police don't have to admit they are wrong!

    August 19, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ez A

    Looks like 2 chicks and a dude.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      You're attracted to some ugly need some help. I'm sure you'd be one of those people that would go and marry one of these folks in prison.

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

      Try to keep up with the adult conversation... or leave.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ez A

      Aww did I hurt someone's feelings? Should have I injected race into the discussion? It was a joke get over yourselves. You are not the blog moderators, as far as I know. Personally a parent is asking for problems when they name their son Damien.

      August 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. steve

    So when did the absence of DNA evidence mean anything?

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

      When you have 2 other people's dna at the scene instead....a lot.

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

      Well, given that DNA was about the only hard evidence the prosecutors and police would have had.. quite a lot.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. windrider2

    The State is the one that got off lucky with these pleas. They coerced a confession from a suspect with an IQ of 72, corrected all the mistakes he made in his coerced 'confession' and then used him to go after the other two. No DNA evidence and no physical evidence to link the suspects to the victims adds up to a rairoaded set of verdicts. By entering the Alford plea, these three men can't sue the state for wrongful imprisonment or press charges of prosecutorial misconduct. Welcome to America's justice for the's no justice at all.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Missylu81

    If the new DNA evidence doesn't link these men to the crime, then are they re-opneing the case to find out who it DOES link to? The terrible murder of these little boys should not go unsolved. Whoever did do it is still out there...

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

      No, as far as they are concerned the case is done and dusted. Getting these guys to enter this plea means they have washed their hands of the case. Only if startling new evidence comes to light will it ever get a second glance now.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      If you watched the press conference with these guys, you can tell that Jason Baldwin will continue to fight to clear his name. I feel like if the real killer(s) is ever found, it will be because of evidence uncovered by Baldwin and his lawyers. According to the D.A.'s Office, this case is officially closed and they will no longer actively work on it, but the Alford plea allows charges to be brought against another party in the future if evidence exists (from what I understand).

      August 19, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      The DNA matches the step-father of one of the boys and a male friend of his. The now ex-wife (the mother of one of the victims) now says that she thinks he may have been involved. After what happened to these three, I'm reluctant to point fingers- but I hope someone is going to at least investigate these two new suspects, because it was a very brutal crime and the children deserve real justice.

      August 19, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. wilson

    They explained it, and I understood what they said... but I'm still confused. So... essentially, the state has enough evidence to convict them, but if they plead guilty, they get off from serving the rest of their time? Wow. I bet the prisons are full of people who would take that deal in a heartbeat.

    And supposing these guys are actually innocent... then what is all this evidence against them? Saying you didn't do something doesn't mean squat if you actually did it. If they were innocent, then what's up with the evidence?

    And if they are truly innocent... why take the deal? Sure, it gets you out of prison, but your life is screwed. You'll never be able to get a good job, or have benefits of ordinary citizens with those felonies hanging over your head forever. If I were innocent, I would fight to the end to prove it. If I wasn't innocent, I would take the deal and run. Looks like that's just what these guys did. The justice system in America is a joke. Better than most other countries... but still terrible.

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

      Research a little bit into the case. The fact is they were kids who liked to dress in black and wear makeup, etc. They were in the south and when the bodies turned up they instantly looked at the kids. The truth of the matter is that the cops found the knife in one of the kids backyard, what is not mention is that it was the backyard of a trailer park where one of the victims and his father lived. A father who was known to be just a little off kilt. father's dna evidence was found, but not enough to prove he did anything and if these kids went to trial they already got screwed once and one was given the death sentence, you really don't want to risk it again, would you? Or would you try to get back to your family as quickly as possible.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • splishkid

      The state had a problem. If , and it looked probable, there was a re-trial, the possibility of a conviction was low. They r saying – OK u did it ,we know u did it, we have evidence, but likely u may get off in end so lets end it now witha compromise. To me they did it or why take deal.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      John, I totally agree with you about not wanted to risk getting screwed again, but I feel I have to correct some of your facts. The knife that was found in the pond near Damien's house was not the murder weapon. In the case transcripts, you can see that it was refered to as a knife that was similar to one that could have made some of the marks, but it was never even close to having been proved to be the murder weapon. There was never any blood found on it or anything else on it that linked it to the crime. Also, Damien lived in the trailer park (which I think I read was not even in West Memphis but in a small town a couple of miles from West Memphis). I don't think that any of the victims lived in a trailer park.

      Also, the DNA from the hair that was found inside the knots of the ligature belonged to Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch's stepfather. This was reported in multiple news outlets in Arkansas and Memphis, but never entered the evidence. I believe this is the evidence that was supposed to be in the hearing in December.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Finally

    New DNA evidence failed to link the men to the crime
    A hair of stepfather to Stevie Branch, was found tied into the knots used to bind one of the victims

    Glad to see the men have been freed..never any proof

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

      In that case, they should have been cleared of all charges.

      August 19, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Pelle

    Unless you are familiar with the specifics of the case (and a lot of you clearly are not) please don't assume anything. This was a total rush to judgment & none of these young men had a chance at justice. Thank god they may finally be getting one.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. saywhat

    Even terrorists can go free.
    Remember the 9 terrorists of the militia Christian Soldiers (Hutaree) arrested in march 2010. For plotting to kill federal officials, use weapons of mass destruction & to later expand their terrorist mission to wage war against US govt.
    They were quietly let go by a judge.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. EddyL

    So bottom line is they had no evidence.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. carol

    If these three are not guilty, then who killed those young boys? Someone murdered them and got away with it. And they need to be caught.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. keylargo

    Coerced confessions and wrongful imprisonment are not uncommon. It has happened in every state in the union, and will happen again. The advent of DNA evidence has , and will save some. If you think its not happened in your state, you should do some research.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. GaJanie

    They knew these guys were not guilty or else they would have left them in prison. The pleading guilty keeps them from being sued for 3 innocent men spending 18 years in prison, and one of them on death row. Its a wonder he wasn't executed yet.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Crescendo

    It's hard to tell the difference between the lawyers, judges and criminals these days. All of them appear to be dumber than fence posts.

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