By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — During a panel discussion in Little Rock Thursday on the West Memphis Three case, an audience member asked a pointed question.
"The state of Arkansas, you say, is so convinced that these men are guilty," the audience began his question to the prosecutor in the case, Scott Ellington. "What does them standing in front of a new judge saying that they’re guilty benefit to anyone? To let someone off of death row and two other men out of prison — who does that help, other than them?"
The question addresses overarching issues in the case: Three men were released, but was justice served? What does it say about the criminal justice system when claims of innocence and pleas of guilty are allowed to coexist?
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of capitol murder in the 1993 deaths of 8-year-olds Stevie Branch, Christopher Myers and Michael Moore, whose bound and mutilated bodies were found in a West Memphis creek. Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection; Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.
Their fight for freedom attracted thousands of supporters, including several celebrities, who believed prosecutors had won convictions based on a dubious confession by Misskelley and shaky theories about Satanic rituals.
Under a deal reached Aug. 19, the men pleaded guilty to reduced murder charges and were sentenced to time already served — 18 years — plus 10 years of probation. They entered Alford pleas, which allow them to continue maintaining they are innocent while admitting that the state could produce enough evidence to convict them if they were tried again.
The pleas also prevent Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley from suing over their convictions and imprisonment.
The term "Alford plea" comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1970 ruling in the case North Carolina v. Alford. That case involved a man charged with first-degree murder who pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in order to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, though he insisted he was innocent.
"The U.S. Supreme Court sort of affirmed the validity of that approach by saying there was enough evidence to convict this guy, and it is acceptable to enter a plea saying, ‘Yes, I’m pleading guilty, but in fact I’m innocent,’ as a strategic maneuver," said Nicholas Kahn-Fogel, assistant professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Critics of the Alford plea say it undermines the public’s faith in the justice system.
"I suppose that’s possible," Kahn-Fogel said. "But the alternative (in the West Memphis Three case) would have been either, from the state’s perspective, to expose itself to potential liability, or from the perspective of these guys who were probably wrongfully imprisoned, to expose themselves to the possibility of being imprisoned indefinitely — and I understand Mr. Echols was sentenced to death."
Kahn-Fogel called the Alford plea "an imperfect compromise."
Ellington and the attorneys for the West Memphis Three say the deal was a practical, though not satisfying, solution. The Arkansas Supreme Court last year ordered a new evidentiary hearing based on new evidence obtained by the defense, and new trials appeared likely.
"It was better, I believe, for the state of Arkansas, if you’re in my position, to enter into this agreement where three individuals plead guilty and then leave with 10 years’ SIS (suspended imposition of sentence) over their head rather than being acquitted at a trial in the near future and walking out without any supervision," Ellington said.
Blake Hendrix, attorney for Baldwin, said his client accepted the plea deal only to get Echols off death row. Prosecutors would only accept the deal if it included all three men.
Hendrix admitted that "the conclusion of this case is unsatisfactory."
"The Alford plea, I know there’s been a lot of, ‘What is this thing?’ I’ll tell you, it is not as rare as some people think it is," he said.
Among fairly recent examples, a Missouri woman, Shannon Torrez, entered an Alford plea in 2008 after prosecutors said she slashed a woman’s throat, kidnapped the woman’s newborn and passed the baby off as her own for five days. The mother survived the attack.
In 2006, an Oklahoma man, Troy Flinn, entered an Alford plea after being charged with raping an 8-year-old girl in Sequoyah County. In 2005, another Oklahoma man, former Sequoyah County Assistant District Attorney Steven Ramm, entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge of being a peeping tom.
The deal that freed Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley angered some who believe they are guilty, including victim Stevie Branch’s father, Steve Branch Sr., who told reporters on the day the deal was accepted, "They’re going to set a precedent to release all the baby killers, murderers and rapists in prison off of death row. All they got to do is admit their crime and they can walk free."
State Rep. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, who was mayor of West Memphis when the boys were slain, said he believes the men are guilty, but the deal was "probably the best thing that could have been done."
A new trial might have resulted in acquittal because the evidence has grown stale, witnesses’ memories have faded and some witnesses have died, Ingram said.
"I’m not sure that it’ll ever be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction, but I think that everybody on both sides have tried to do what they think was right," he said.
Capi Peck, a Little Rock restaurateur and leader of the pro-West Memphis Three group Arkansas Take Action, said supporters have mixed feelings about the plea deal.
"We have so many supporters that at first were almost disappointed with the Alford plea. They so wanted to see our day in court," she said.
But Peck said that would have meant asking Echols to stay on death row, where his health was failing. The fight to clear the men’s names will go on, she said.
"They can fight a lot more easily from the outside than the inside," she said.