Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three, have been in prison since 1993 for the murders of 8-year-old boys Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and James Michael Moore. On August 19, 2011, they have been freed. A live stream of the WM3 public hearing in Jonesboro, AK is below.
The West Memphis Three’s sentences have been converted to 18 years with credit for time served, as well as 10 years SIS (suspended imposition of sentence), which is like parole without the restrictions. The WM3 just have to stay out of legal trouble for the next ten years to avoid returning to prison.
As you read this, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin are being freed. The convictions of the West Memphis Three were not overturned. Instead, they agreed to what is called an Alford plea.
I walked in the door minutes ago, looked over the hubby’s shoulder, saw the headline and was stunned. It’s probably one of the best endings to this chapter of a long story that almost certainly isn’t over yet.
I remember seeing the documentary for the first time, and being both stunned and frightened at how “Satanic Panic” could conspire to convict three guys for little more than being different from everyone else in town. This case happened at the tail end of the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria that hit in the 1980s and ran into the 1990s, and propelled cases like the McMartin preschool scandal and the Little Rascals day care abuse trial into the national spotlight.
A lot has changed since then. So many people have rallied to the cause of the innocence of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin — including the parents of the three young victims — that it seemed almost impossible that they would not be released eventually. But Damien Echols’ death sentence meant that “eventually” might not be soon enough, and that waiting was a gamble. The high profile nature of the case made it less likely that the state would start the process that would lead to Echol’s execution, but “less likely” doesn’t meant it absolutely would not happen. (Other states have executed people who were very likely innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die — in Texas, most recently — on as much or less evidence than Echols’ case, or whose guilt was as much or more in doubt.)
That’s why I think both the WM3 and the prosecutors office opted for an Alford Plea, from what I’ve read in the news.
In an Alford Plea, the criminal defendant does not admit the act, but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charge. The court will pronounce the defendant guilty. The defendant may plead guilty yet not admit all the facts that comprise the crime. An Alford plea allows defendant to plead guilty even while unable or unwilling to admit guilt. One example is a situation where the defendant has no recollection of the pertinent events due to intoxication or amnesia. A defendant making an Alford plea maintains his innocence of the offense charged. One reason for making such a plea may be to avoid being convicted on a more serious charge. Acceptance of an Alford plea is in the court’s discretion.
However, in many states, a plea which “admits sufficient facts” often results in the case being continued without a decision and later dismissed. A conviction under an Alford plea may be used as a conviction for later sentencing purposes. However, one state supreme court has held that an Alford plea, unlike a criminal trial, does not provide a full and fair hearing on the issues in the case, and therefore does not preclude later litigation of the issues.
It sounds like neither side wanted to gamble on a trial or a longer stay on death row.
Certainly the prosecutor sounds like he wants to “believe this case is closed,” because he knew he the West Memphis Three would probably be acquitted in a new trial.
The plea agreement accepted by Circuit David Laser in Craighead County Circuit Court allowed the three to enter the conditional pleas and still maintain their innocence. It also shields the state from wrongful prosecution lawsuits.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said after today’s hearing the state considers the long-running case over. He said he agreed to the plea because the three likely would have received a new trial in light of new evidence in the case and that they “could very easily have been acquitted.”
On the part of the West Memphis Three, the plea deal probably looked better than waiting to go to trial which could still quite possibly — despite the new evidence ,— not end in their favor. They could end up still in prison, instead of being release. The Alford plea is essentially a guilty plea, which all three seemed to understand. Echols stated, “I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea.” Misskelley said, “Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest.” After the hearing, Baldwin told reporters he didn’t like having to plead guilty, but agreed to the deal in order to get Echols off death row. “That’s not justice, however you look at it,” he added.
It came down to a choice. Sit in prison for who knows how much longer, or walk out of prison now, get my friend off death row, and still have the ability to fight for my innocence? It’s not a easy decision, certainly. But I can’t say I’ve have decided any differently than they did. It’s not a perfect deal for either the state or the WM3 guys, and maybe that’s why it happened.
Echols also stated the three would still work to clear their names. The Alford plea “does not preclude later litigation,” and thus allows them to do that. It allowed the prosecutor to continue to pursue charges too, I guess, but that seem highly unlikely now.
If nothing else, it was good news to hear when I walked in the door. But as I talked about it with the hubby, Parker asked what I was talking about. I told him about the case in a way I felt was appropriate for his age, and it boiled down to this: Three guys were sent to prison for a crime that they didn’t commit, mainly because they were different and because people were upset about the crime, even though there wasn’t any proof they did it. A lot of people believe they were innocent, and worked really hard for a long time to get the three guys out of prison. And today they finally did it.
It’s not quite justice, as Baldwin said, but it gives me some hope that sometimes our system can work in favor of justice in cases where it failed to before.