Eddie Vedder
At a hearing packed with people including Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder (pictured), the West Memphis Three were set free after entering an Alford plea. Photo Credit: VersusLiveQuizShow/Flickr/CC-BY

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the “West Memphis Three,” have been freed after spending nearly 20 years behind bars. The trio, who have consistently maintained their innocence, agreed to what is known as an Alford plea to secure their release.

Obscure legal plea agreement commutes death and life sentences

The “West Memphis Three,” or Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, are being set free after agreeing to what is known as an Alford plea, reports CBS. The three men were convicted of murdering three young boys in 1994, under what many consider dubious circumstances. They will go free after having been taken into custody in 1993, as their sentences were reduced to time already served. An Alford plea is essentially half-way between a plea of not guilty and guilty; the plea is basically that a person maintains that they are innocent but admits that a prosecutor would likely be able to convict them. According to Wikipedia, the plea comes from North Carolina v. Alford, a 1970 Supreme Court case. The court ruled that the plea can be entered when a conviction seems likely though a defendant maintains innocence.

Further hearings pending

According to the New York Times, the Arkansas Supreme Court had scheduled a hearing for December regarding DNA evidence that could have resulted in new trials for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. According to ABC, DNA evidence linking them to the murders of Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers was never found. A hair belonging to Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Steve Branch, was found on one of the victims. The case, according to the BBC, hinged on testimony from people who claimed to overhear Echols talking about committing the crime. A knife was also found in a lake behind Jason Baldwin’s home. Since the victims were discovered bound, the murders were said to have been a “Satanic ritual.” Echols had an interest in Wicca at the time and was a known heavy metal fan. After Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley were arrested, Misskelley confessed to the crime after hours of questioning, but later recanted. Misskelley has a less than 80 IQ. His confession, according to CBS, was leaked to jurors, though it was never admitted into evidence.

Documentary made trio a cause célèbre

The 1996 Bruce Sinofsky/Joe Berlinger documentary “Paradise Lost” brought the West Memphis Three to national attention. Furthermore, musicians and actors have spoken out on behalf of the West Memphis Three over the years. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder was present in the courtroom. Actor Johnnie Depp and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks have also campaigned to free the West Memphis Three as well. The West Memphis Three have stated that the plea isn’t perfect, but they are content to have gained their freedom.


CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/08/19/national/main20094671.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody

ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/US/west-memphis-three-freed-dna-evidence-feeds-doubts/story?id=14340244

CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-20094730-504083.html

Wikipedia on Alford Plea: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alford_plea

Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/08/19/paradise-lost-filmmaker-on-the-release-of-the-west-memphis-three/

BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14598845

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/20/us/20arkansas.html

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