In a deal described by Damien Echols as "not perfect" and by Jason Baldwin as "not justice," the three men known as the West Memphis Three, who've now spent roughly half their lives in prison, went home to their loved ones. Using a rare legal maneuver called an Alford Plea, they have entered guilty pleas without admitting guilt.
In an Alford Plea, the criminal defendant does not admit the act, but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charge. The court will pronounce the defendant guilty. The defendant may plead guilty yet not admit all the facts that comprise the crime. An Alford plea allows defendant to plead guilty even while unable or unwilling to admit guilt.
As proof that the law and the truth can be miles apart, Prosecutor Scott Ellington admitted in the press conference posted below that it was extremely unlikely that they could prove the charges in a new trial. He also conceded that a new trial was pretty much inevitable.
I believe that the allegations of misconduct on behalf of a juror in the Echols and Baldwin trial could have led to a new trial being ordered by the Circuit Court or the Federal Court. I believe it would be practically impossible after eighteen years to put on a proper case against the defendants in this case after such extended litigation. Even if the State were to prevail in a new trial, sentences would be different and appeals would then ensue... Since the original convictions two of the victims families have joined forces with the defense and publicly proclaimed the innocence of the defendants. The mother of one of the witnesses who testified against Damien Echols has now publicly questioned her daughter's truthfulness. The State crime lab employee who gathered fiber evidence at the homes of Echols and Baldwin has died since the trial, the original trial. In light of these circumstances I decided to entertain plea offers that were being proposed by the defense.
Ellington admitted that the fear of civil suits from the defendants was a motivating factor.
I mean with their entry of a plea of guilty we have, uh, removed the question of uh, um, of, uh, uh, uh, them filing a civil lawsuit against the state that could result in many millions of dollars...
Those are really the money quotes. The State knows full well that they won't be able to get a new conviction and they're scared of millions of dollars in damages being awarded to the wrongfully convicted men. Ellington is doing a valiant job of saving face for the State, though, insisting that he believes they are guilty and hopes that they have been rehabilitated.
The juror misconduct issue to which he repeatedly refers I covered here some months ago. The Arkansas Supreme Court determined that both new DNA results and the allegations that jury foreman Kent Arnold had acted improperly merited reconsideration of the case. An evidentiary hearing scheduled for this coming December would almost certainly have resulted in new trials. The deal reached today saves the State from suffering that indignity.
Today's hearing, which was attended by Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder, and throngs of less famous supporters of the West Memphis Tree was bittersweet. Three men are finally free and with their loved ones. Damien Echols is now free to be with his wife Lorri Davis whom he met after he was convicted and who has worked tirelessly for his freedom. But it's hard to call it justice. They've spent their youths inside prison cells for a crime they didn't commit and they still stand convicted of that crime. Worse, they can't sue so they have no recourse.
Easily the greatest injustice to come out of today's proceedings is that the State considers the matter closed and will not be pursuing any further investigation into the deaths of the three eight year old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore.
Jason Baldwin was vocal in his condemnation of the deal. He said today at the press conference also posted below that he had initially rejected it. He reconsidered and took the deal because Damien Echols was on death row and still stood a chance of being executed. He took the deal to save a life. In one of the most moving moments of today's proceedings Damien thanked him publicly and the two men embraced.
Mark Byers, stepfather of the deceased Christopher Byers, also vigorously criticized the deal earlier today as he waited outside the court building for the hearing to start. Byer's said to a cheering crowd:
This is not right and the people of Arkansas need to stand up and raise hell 'cause three innocent men are gonna have to claim today that they're guilty for a crime they didn't know and that's BULLSHIT!
Byers is a real character and his theatricality made him a suspect in the eyes of many viewers of the two documentaries that brought this case to the attention of the public. He said today that embarrassed as he was by his own on-screen behavior, he's happy to have been the foil if it meant keeping the pressure on to get these men released.
Because I've been under the gun for fourteen years because of my actions in two movies. And I stand right here today and say if my actions in those two movies kept this alive for those men to get their freedom then praise God that I acted like a fool and HBO got it on camera and it kept it alive. I'd do it again.
Steven Branch, the father of the late Stevie Branch, also had harsh words for the deal but for a different reason. He remains convinced that the three are guilty. His reasons? Well, for one thing, he claims that Damien Echols wants to go to Salem, Massachusetts for Halloween. To Branch's way of thinking this flies directly in the face of his claims of not practicing Satanism. I don't know if Echols is planning to go to Salem. I couldn't find any media reporting of it. But I can't think of a more obvious choice. Many people, including myself, have reasonably compared the case of the WM3 to the witch trials. My question to Steven Branch would be, does he really think the people who were hanged in Salem were devil worshippers? I mean does anyone still think that in this day and age?
In a truly bizarre turn, Branch accused family members of the dead boys (including his ex-wife Pam Hobbs) who'd gone to "the other side," of forsaking him as God did Jesus on the cross. More strangely, he describes Jesus as having had "parents," plural. So, while he's pretty clear on the witchery thing, he may not be so up on his Bible.
Branch also had a melt down during the hearing and had to be forcibly removed from the courtroom. As Judge Laser was going over the fine points of sentencing with the defendants, he started screaming, "Your honor, if you go through with this you're gonna open Pandora's box... You're gonna give 'em the key to it." As he was dragged out of the court he could still be heard screaming, "This is wrong, y'all."
In the hearing which was not aired live but was streamed later by CNN, the judge conditionally set a new trial on the basis of new evidence. The prosecutors entered new, modified charges of three counts first degree murder for both Echols and Baldwin and one charge of first degree murder and two charges of second degree murder for Misskelley. They took capitol murder off the table.
In accordance with the plea agreement, all three waived their right to a jury trial and plead guilty but simultaneously avowed their innocence.
Laser: Having heard those statements, uh, Mr. Echols, what, how do wish to plead in this case?
Echols: Your honor I am innocent of these charges but I'm entering an Alford guilty plea today based on the advice of my counsel and my understanding that it's in my best interest to do so given the entire record of the case.
. . .
Laser: Mr., uh, Baldwin, uh, having heard the statement made by the State as to a portion of the proof that's expected in this case, how do you choose to plead in this case?
Baldwin: Your Honor, first of all, I'm innocent of murdering Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch. However, after serving eighteen years in the penitentiary for such, I agree that it's in the State's best interest as well as my own that based upon North Carolina vs. Alford that I plead guilty to first degree murder [unintelligible].
. . .
Laser: The same as relates to you Mr. Misskelley, how do you wish to plead in response to the provable charges in this case?
Misskelley: I am pleading guilty under North Carolina vs. Alford [unintelligible] so ruled, although I'm innocent, this plea is in my best interest.
The whole thing had the feeling of a sort of mock trial with Judge Laser stammering and pausing as if he were reading lines in a dress rehearsal he'd just gotten the script for. It all felt like a sham... because it was. They even have a kind of pretend probation called suspended imposition of sentence, in which they don't have to report to a parole officer or anything but they do have to keep their noses clean for the next ten years.
Judge Laser spoke at length to the chamber and explained that he knew there were strong emotions on both sides and that this solution would not "make the pain go away." In a break from the typical hostility to celebrities and other "outsiders" who've stuck their noses into West Memphis business expressed by so many public officials through the years, Judge Laser openly thanked supporters for their interest in justice. He thanked attorneys who'd worked pro bono and people who'd raised funds for DNA research and other testing that was beyond the means of the State. It was a rather unsubtle nod to Natalie Maines and Eddie Vedder who were in the courtroom.
Nothing can make the pain go away for anyone involved in this case. Nothing will bring back the lives of those three children and nothing will restore eighteen years lost to three innocent men. But this strange, cockeyed plea agreement is a place to start.
All information on the trial comes from news articles with provided links or CNN's live feed. All quotes and paraphrased statements that are not linked to a source document are my best attempt to transcribe material from live broadcasts.