Almost justice–the West Memphis 3 go free at last under Alford plea

A year ago, Johnny Depp played and sang his heart out in a concert on behalf of the West Memphis 3, three men whom he believed had been wrongfully convicted of murder in Arkansas in 1994. Today the West Memphis 3 — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley — walked out of jail as free men, concluding a shocking and troubling chapter in American judicial history, and freeing Mr. Echols from death row. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were teenagers in 1994 when they were convicted of killing three eight-year-old boys — Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. At the time, local law enforcement theorized that the teenagers (who wore black and listened to heavy metal music) killed the children as part of a satanic ritual. Mr. Echols was sentenced to death; Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelly were sentenced life in prison.

But over the years doubts emerged about their guilt. DNA evidence has been recovered at the scene, none of it linking any of the accused to the crime. After a sustained publicity campaign to draw attention to the new exculpatory evidence, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted the defendants a new hearing, which was to occur in December. Many legal experts believed the convictions of the West Memphis 3 would be overturned.

Now the trio are free under a very unusual plea agreement called an Alford plea, in which defendants, while still maintaining their innocence, acknowledge that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them and agree to plead guilty in order to be released from jail. This face-saving guilty plea ensures that the state of Arkansas cannot be sued for false imprisonment should the trio later be fully exonerated by new evidence or by having someone else convicted of the murders.

“‘We’ll let you go only if you admit guilt,'” James Baldwin told CBS News. “That’s not justice, no matter how you look at it.” Mr. Baldwin wanted to continue to fight to clear his name, but saving the life of Damien Echols, who was on death row, took precedence. Hopefully their innocence can be established by having the true culprit convicted in a court of law, which will bring justice for the murdered boys and their families as well as the West Memphis 3.

The Zone congratulates all those who fought to shed light on the miscarriage of justice in this case. Many thanks to FANtasticJD and deb0630 for sharing the news. You can read more about the freeing of the West Memphis 3 on the Zone’s Porch General Discussion forum.