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August 19, 2011

Plea deal frees "West Memphis Three" now 18 years after their (wrongful?) convictions

As detailed in this New York Times article, which is headlined "Deal Frees ‘West Memphis Three’ in Arkansas," a high-profile, long-running case involving possible wrongful convictions has now been wrapped up through a plea deal. Here are the specifics:

Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in a notorious 1993 murder case were freed from jail on Friday, after a complicated legal maneuver that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. Related

A district court judge declared that the three men — Damien W. Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 36, known as the West Memphis Three — who have been in prison since their arrest in 1993, had served the time for their crime.  The judge also levied a 10-year suspended sentence on each of the men.

With his release Friday, Mr. Echols became the highest-profile death row inmate to be released in recent memory. The agreement, known as an Alford plea, does not result in a full exoneration; some of the convictions stand, though the men did not admit guilt. The deal came five months before a scheduled hearing was to held to determine whether the men should be granted a new trial in light of DNA evidence that surfaced in the past few years. None of their DNA has been found in tests of evidence at the scene. The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the new hearing in November, giving new life to efforts to exonerate the three men.

In May 1993, the bodies of the boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and James Michael Moore, were found in a drainage ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis, Ark., called Robin Hood Hills. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, their hands tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders led to a theory about satanic cult activity. Investigators focused their attention on Mr. Echols, at the time a troubled yet gifted teenager who practiced Wicca, a rarity in the town of West Memphis. Efforts to learn more about him, spearheaded by a single mother cooperating with the police, led to Mr. Misskelley, a passing acquaintance of Mr. Echols, who is borderline mentally retarded.

After a nearly 12-hour interrogation by the police, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, though his confession diverged in significant details with the facts of the crime known by the police....

Largely on the strength of that confession, Mr. Misskelley was convicted in February 1994. Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin were convicted soon after in a separate trial, largely on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders and on the prosecution’s theory that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult....

An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention. Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and the men’s supporters continued to pursue their freedom. Many residents of West Memphis resented the presumption that outsiders knew the details of the horrific case better than they did. But in recent years some, though not all, of the victims’ families have begun to doubt the guilt of the three men.

August 19, 2011 at 01:50 PM | Permalink

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Very interesting. Good for them. I would quibble with the article in the sense that I don't see an Alfrod/best interest as a particularly "complicated" legal maneuver. But perhaps from the perspective of a layman it is. I mean, it is a bit weird to maintain your innocence and plead guilty. But I am sure this was their best option; with all of the bars to reopening old cases, the presumptions of correctness of jury findings, etc., the results of the hearing were no sure thing, even if the new DNA seriously undermined the confidence any reasonable person would have in the result of the former proceeding (talk about complicated legal maneuvers...)

This is a actually a repeat issue in this type of case -- the interests of both parties in the adversary system in *avoiding* an ultimate, all-or-nothing, binding determination are in conflict with the interest of the general public in having an investigation and determination of whether the system made a serious mistake.

The defendant's cost-benefit analysis is particularly skewed because he has sunk costs in the form of lost years of his life which he can use as part "payment" for his supposed crime, but which he cannot hope to have refunded. So, he can agree to serve the 15 years he's already served, in exchange for a manslaughter plea that effectively guarantees his immediate release, without really losing anything. (If he was truly innocent, he doesn't lose that much from agreeing to parole/supervision. He wasn't a criminal to start with, so he can be fairly confident in completing parole successfully.)

To be sure, there is a large intangible value in being formally exonerated (and, sometimes, a financial value ranging from minor to substantial). But if that is all you stand to gain by forcing a final determination, whereas you stand to lose the rest of your life, the choice for most people would be clear. (Especially considering the procedural handicaps noted above.)

Of course, on the other hand, the State often doesn't want a final determination either. Their greatest fear is a judgment against them, effectively establishing a wrongful conviction. As long as they can get a plea to a lesser included, they have a more or less bulletproof defense against misconduct, civil law suits, etc. And their conviction rate doesn't even go down!

To some extent, it would be better if there were a parallel civil "Innocence Board" or something, independently charged with investigating what really happened in cases where there is probable cause to believe a wrongful conviction occurred (and which would not require consent of defendants to investigate -- or the State would just require them to waive...) I'm picturing something like an NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) for the criminal justice system.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 19, 2011 2:32:40 PM

Anon --

Would you support a similar truth-determining board where there is credible reason to believe there has been an erroneous acquittal? It seems to that if we are determined to find the truth, that is a mission without a partisan cast.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 19, 2011 4:27:10 PM

Bill:

Our system does not contemplate "erroneous acquittals." The only question in a criminal trial is whether the gov't has enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it should be able to take away a person's liberty, or, in rare cases, life. Guilt or innocence is irrelevant to the modern criminal adjudicatory process and as such there aren't "erroneous acquittal" although it is always possible to convict an innocent man. Unfortunately for the WM3 "beyond a reasonable doubt" appears not to have been an arduous enough standard.

Posted by: speaking just for me.... | Aug 19, 2011 5:12:57 PM

MSNBC has additional detail (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44199686/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/?GT1=43001):

"Then they tied them up, tied their hands up," Misskelley said in a statement to police, parts of which were tape recorded. After describing sodomizing and other violence, he went on: "And I saw it and turned around and looked, and then I took off running. I went home, then they called me and asked me, 'How come I didn't stay? I told them, I just couldn't.'"

"Misskelley later recanted, and defense lawyers said the then-17-year-old got several parts of the story wrong. An autopsy said there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. And Miskelley had said the older boys abducted the boys in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.

"In upholding Echols' conviction in 1996, the state Supreme Court noted that two people testified Echols bragged about the killings, an eyewitness put Echols at the scene, fibers similar to the boys' clothing were found in Echols' home, a knife was found in a pond behind Baldwin's home, Echols' interest in the occult and his telling police that he understood the boys had been mutilated before officers had released such details." ###

From the MSNBC story, it seems that the three did plead guilty, while maintaining their innocence. If that's the case, then they stand convicted, on their pleas, of some of the most atrocious child murders you'll ever hear about.

And yes, I know we'll hear the cookie-cutter, ideologically hatched wailing about how they're actually innocent. I'll get to those eventually. I'm still winding my way through the equally loud and equally snarling claims that Roger Keith Coleman was, likewise, innocent.

Aren't they all.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 19, 2011 5:14:24 PM

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Posted by: sandagr8 | Aug 19, 2011 5:16:09 PM

speaking for just me.... --

I'm glad you're speaking for just you.

The idea that there is no such thing as an erroneous acquittal is something one would see only on either a defense-oriented site or some screwball academic site.

Normal people, and normal lawyers for that matter, understand that such an idea is not merely mistaken but preposterous.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 19, 2011 5:38:46 PM

Since they pled guilty again, they are not innocent, they were just able to game the system to get early release.

I agree that this is a travesty of justice, but the State should have defended its conviction or accepted another trial.

All this proves is that celebrity meddling in the criminal justice system produces nothing of value.

Posted by: Federale | Aug 19, 2011 6:51:47 PM

They took an Alford plea, it isn't a plea of guilty. DNA says they didn't do it and the local DA said he couldn't prove they did it.

Posted by: speaking just for me... | Aug 19, 2011 10:29:53 PM

Bill:

Tea Party talking points aside, I don't think you have tried a case in a long time. Jurors get it. Their job isnt to determine whether the guy is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt but rather whether there is enough evidence to convict a guy. A percentage of the population will believe in UFOs, bigfoot, and that the WM3 are guilty, but those aren't most people.

Posted by: speaking just for me... | Aug 19, 2011 10:31:55 PM

@speaking just for me...
"DNA says they didn't do it"
DNA neither proved nor disproved their guilt. That's the problem with post conviction DNA testing, sometimes it's presence or lack is irrelevant.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 20, 2011 11:08:04 AM

What evidence is there to sustain their convictions? The confession of the co-conspirator is out. What else is left?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 20, 2011 2:50:08 PM

Pleading guilty means you are guilty. Alford does not say that they are innocent. In fact it says that they pled guilty with full and complete knowledge of the consequences of their actions.

Posted by: Federale | Aug 20, 2011 2:50:22 PM

That doesn't really answer the question, does it? Obviously, if I were wrongfully convicted, I'd take a similar plea here also. What evidence (not pleas) ties these men to that monstrous crime?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 20, 2011 4:35:38 PM

Federale:

They took an Alford plea which is not a plea of guilty. It would helped if you knew something about crimlaw & the WM3 case before chiming in. Here is a link to get you up to speed: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/3_men_win_release_from_prison_today_by_taking_alford_plea_in_1993_murder_of/

Posted by: Speaking just for me | Aug 20, 2011 6:51:39 PM

Speaking just for me --

"Tea Party talking points aside..."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. NACDL talking points aside, etc., etc.

"I don't think you have tried a case in a long time."

Of course that is a question of fact, not of your assumptions, now isn't it? Nor for that matter is it relevant; many people post here who have never tried a case at all. But for however that may be, perhaps you could enlighten us in specifics about YOUR experience, since you think it's so important.

"Jurors get it."

Indeed so. They got when they convicted this guy (and Willingham and Roger Coleman). Glad to see you're on board.

"Their job isnt to determine whether the guy is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt but rather whether there is enough evidence to convict a guy. A percentage of the population will believe in UFOs, bigfoot, and that the WM3 are guilty, but those aren't most people."

I'm sure you'll tell us how you know that "most people" believe these guys were not guilty.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 21, 2011 11:00:57 AM

Bill, once you toss out the confession, there does not seem to be a lot of evidence to support the conviction. Certainly, a hell of a lot less than the evidence that supported House's conviction (and I still believe that it was a miscarriage of justice for Kennedy and the libs to toss that conviction.)

Posted by: federalist | Aug 21, 2011 11:08:44 AM

federalist --

I do not have any firsthand knowledge of the case, and am thus poorly situated to say anything definitive about guilt or innocence. You and I are well acquainted, however, with commenters here who have never seen anyone who wasn't innocent, or, even in the super unlikely event that they might have been guilty, deserved any punishment.

The only things that are both relevant and of which I'm sure are: These guys were convicted by a jury years ago; they were convicted by the court this week; and that in a few decades of practicing law, I never heard of an innocent person who told the cops that he had raped, sexually mutilated and then murdered three little boys.

Assuming arguendo that there could be strategic reasons to confess to one thing or another you didn't actually do, the idea that a person would confess to THAT is pretty far-fetched. You might as well confess to being Satan.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 21, 2011 7:11:32 PM

Bill:

With your (the best damn justice system ever) consistent approach, what is the proper ratio for exonerating the guilty and condemning the innocent; 1:1, 1:10, 10:1, 1:100 or 100:1?

I read the book several years ago, and by my recollection, it was obvious that LE corrupted the confessions every way possible, (possibly even physical injuries), and the main confessor was borderline retarded.

He did confess to being Satan, i.e., being a fan of Metallica which was enough in Memphis to convict.

Posted by: albeed | Aug 21, 2011 9:53:48 PM


albeed --

"With your (the best damn justice system ever) consistent approach, what is the proper ratio for exonerating the guilty and condemning the innocent; 1:1, 1:10, 10:1, 1:100 or 100:1?"

You do the best you can, understanding that nonetheless there will be both erroneous convictions and erroneous acquittals, and sorrowfully accepting this fact as the inescapable outcropping of human frailty.

There are, of course, people who cannot accept this or other unfortunate facts. These people are often called "children."

P.S. When's the last time you or anyone you know confessed to raping, sexually mutilating and murdering three little boys?


Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 21, 2011 11:19:11 PM

neither albeed nor anyone he knows may be a mentally slow, impressionable, 17-year-old boy...

numerous studies and specific incidents have shown that *some* people under *some* circumstances will make false confessions that seem insane to the rest of us. it is easy enough to say "would you ever, ever confess to something horrible like that if it wasn't true?" of course the answer is no -- that's why confessions are such powerful evidence! and they are usually accurate. but there is undeniably a small sub-set of confessions that defy all reason and are demonstrably false, even when heinous crimes are at issue.

it looks like that is what happened here. yes, they technically pled guilty last week (in most states, Alford is a guilty plea, despite the confusion in the comments above; it is different than a nolo plea). but what possible incentive did the prosecutor have to deal here if there wasn't very serious reason to doubt their involvement? if the prosecutor really thinks the original evidence and convictions are solid, how can he let them walk? wouldn't he at least try to defend the convictions/win a retrial if he really thought these 3 had done the horrible, horrible things he accused them of doing?

Posted by: Anon | Aug 22, 2011 12:39:29 AM

Bill,

Assuming arguendo that there could be strategic reasons to confess to one thing or another you didn't actually do, the idea that a person would confess to THAT is pretty far-fetched. You might as well confess to being Satan.

That there are strategic reasons to falsely confess seems plain as day in light of modern-day exonerations (e.g., from DNA testing, revelations of police torture, and such). Hopefully rare as it may be, it happens. That doesn't seem a premise needing qualification.

Besides that, is it that far-fetched to think that if you could falsely confess to killing another human being, that you couldn't also concoct (or echo) any manner of that killing? What causes the former certainly seems like something that can cause the latter.

Posted by: SJS | Aug 22, 2011 12:56:23 AM

Reason= 18 years in prison+ Cost to taxpayers+ weak case=
Alford Plea (Justice)!

Posted by: Money$ | Aug 22, 2011 2:55:33 AM

I think the Alford plea is somewhat irrelevant here. It's pretty obvious why they did it, and an innocent person in their shoes would be nuts not to. My issue, and I keep getting back to this, is what admissible evidence is there that would establish these guys' guilt. Misskelley's confession is only good against him.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 22, 2011 12:52:13 PM

Anon --

"...but what possible incentive did the prosecutor have to deal here if there wasn't very serious reason to doubt their involvement?"

The same incentive the prosecutor has to resolve 90% of his other cases in the same way, to wit, the uncertainty of litigation. You can always get a Casey Anthony jury (although not too often, thank God). Plus, he'd already put them away for 18 years -- below what the crime earned, but a substantial sentence.

"...if the prosecutor really thinks the original evidence and convictions are solid, how can he let them walk?"

See above. And I could just as well ask why these three "gentlemen" would agree to plead guilty, thus branding themselves as among the lowest form of human life imaginable, if they were confident the government's evidence was so spotty it would fall apart.

Answer: They knew, as their plea acknowledged, that the government had enough evidence to support a conviction.

In an old but high stakes case, BOTH sides have to worry about losing. That's the basic reason we have this outcome.

P.S. How eager are you to hire any of these characters to babysit your eight year-old?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 22, 2011 1:20:57 PM

Bill:

Because I might not want to hire them to babysit my kids, does not mean the confessions were valid.

Mister Straw-Man!

Posted by: albeed | Aug 22, 2011 11:49:25 PM

albeed --

"Because I might not want to hire them to babysit my kids, does not mean the confessions were valid."

Nope, but it means that you have some misgivings about what they'd do with your kids. Now why would that be?

P.S. I don't know if they did it and neither do you. They entered a plea admiting the government had enough evidence to prove the case, and they got convicted. I'll leave it at that.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 23, 2011 7:52:19 AM

Plead innocent and go to prison, plead guilty and go free? Doesn't sound like jutise to me, but I don't blame WM3 for doing it. For a DA to agree to the Alford Plea when he feels he has such wonderful evidence, is fishy to me, especially in light of the new hearing being granted. On the other hand, for someone who feels they have been abused by the justice system to agree to it makes sense. Let's see - stay on death row or in prison for life or say I'm innocent but there's enough evidence to [possibly] convict me and go free? That would be an easy choice for me to make.

Guilty or innocent? Only the three of them and God know the answer to that.

Posted by: Chris | Aug 23, 2011 1:36:41 PM

Chris --

"Plead innocent and go to prison, plead guilty and go free?"

What do you mean, "Plead innocent and go to prison...?" You only go to prison if the jury unanimously finds BRD that you committed every element of the offense.

By saying that a plea of innocent would result in their going to jail, you're implicitly, but quite clearly, endorsing exactly the proposition you disclaim in your next sentence. That is, you're endorsing the view that the prosecution would indeed win at a future trial (just as it won at the last one).

As you concede, you have no idea whether they did it. Assuming they didn't is just that -- assuming.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 23, 2011 3:59:25 PM

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