In 1994 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three teenage outcasts were convicted of the murders of three younger boys in what became famous as a dubious pig-circus of a trial. On Friday — after inspiring songs, award-winning documentaries, and celebrity-led protests — the West Memphis Three were suddenly freed from state custody, but only after all three pleaded guilty to the murders as part of the deal that secured their freedom. (See "The West Memphis Three," July 22, 2005.)
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., both 36, and James Baldwin, 34, agreed to enter what is known as an Alford plea, wherein a defendant maintains innocence while simultaneously admitting that prosecutors have enough evidence to convince a judge or jury of their guilt. This differs slightly from nolo contendere pleas, where people agree to be sentenced for a crime without admitting guilt. With an Alford plea, a defendant essentially says, "I am innocent of the charge but, for some fucked-up reason, pleading guilty looks to be my best move."
The case against the WM3 was falling apart. A hearing was scheduled to determine whether they should be granted a retrial in light of newly tested DNA evidence from the crime scene that did not match any of the defendants. (In fact, the DNA was linked to the stepfather of one of the young victims.) Knowing that a retrial was likely and a re-conviction unlikely, Arkansas prosecutors offered the plea deal, and with 18 years already behind them, the WM3 took it. While acknowledging that the arrangement was less than perfect, Dennis Riordan, an attorney for the defendants, told reporters, "Does anyone believe that if the state had even the slightest continuing conviction that [the WM3] were guilty, that they would let these men free today?"
And yet, because an Alford plea is a guilty plea, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are still considered child-killers, and are precluded from suing Arkansas over the hell they endured for most of the past two decades. Joe Berlinger, who co-directed and produced two influential documentaries about the crimes with his partner Bruce Sinofsky (they plan two additional sequels), described the Alford plea as "salvation but not redemption" for the WM3, and lamented the fact that Arkansas will use their plea to avoid any responsibility the state has — not only to the WM3, but also to the three murdered boys: Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and James Michael Moore. Prosecutors say that, with no other suspects, the case is closed. The DNA evidence pointing to someone else apparently doesn't matter.
Call it Arkansas Justice.