Tainted Justice: West Memphis Three Freed From 18 Years in Prison Having Proved Their Innocence. Or Did They?

In 1993 Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin were convicted of first- degree murder in the gruesome, and allegedly satanic,  killings of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, three 8 year old cub scouts whose bodies were dumped in Robin Hood Hills. Steven Branch and Michael Moore drowned in 2 feet of water; Christopher Byers bled to death and his genitals were mutilated.

Subsequently,  the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions and sentences. Echols was on death row; Misskelly and Baldwin were serving life sentences.

On August 19, 2011, the three walked out of jail free and, as they contend, innocent. Innocent, after Baldwin and Echols pled guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and Misskelly pled guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

How did the West Memphis Three end up back in court after their sentences were upheld only to have their convictions and sentences vacated and plead guilty, yet claim to be innocent?

As a criminal defense attorney in Minnesota for over 30 years, I have been in this situation. It is uncommon, but not rare. Undoubtedly, after the three had their convictions and sentences affirmed on appeal, they sought “ collateral review” of their cases. Collateral review is where the trial court reviews allegations of constitutional or statutory rights, as opposed to “direct review” where the appeals court reviews claims arising from the trial court.

Keep in mind that the trial courts are where trials are held. That is, prosecutors present evidence to the fact finder. The fact finder can be a judge (as in a court trial) or a jury in a jury trial. Once there is a conviction and a sentence has been imposed, then the defendant may appeal. On appeal, the appellate court does not take testimony or retry the case. The appellate court is an error-correcting court.

On appeal there are different standards of review the court applies. The purpose of these standards is to determine how much deference the appellate court gives to the trial court. In other words, if on appeal a defendant claims the trial court erred in admitting certain testimony, or evidence, the appellate court will apply the abuse of discretion standard. Why? Because the trial court heard the testimony and observed the demeanor of the witnesses. These observations are not in the record-and the appellate court does not take testimony on appeal.

Consequently, the trial court is vested with much discretion in admitting testimony. Therefore, the appellate court will require the complaining party on appeal about admission of evidence to establish the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the evidence.

If there were a collateral review, then the defendants created a record for review by the appellate court once their claims were denied. Apparently, the three claimed that certain errors occurred at trial. Baldwin and Echols claimed that the jury committed misconduct by accessing information about Misskelly’s confession that was not introduced in their trial.

All three alleged that their DNA was not present at the crime scene. On appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for  an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the jurors  committed  misconduct and to determine whether the absen of the defendants’ DNA  at the crime scene raised an issue of their innocence.

It is obvious that the attorneys and the judge met before the hearing to  discuss the purpose of the hearing and what each side intended to prove. Based on these discussions it became apparent to all parties that both sides wanted to avoid a new trial and, potentially, either total vindication or a verdict neither side could accept.

This is how the pleas were crafted. Welcome to North Carolina vs. Alford, a 1970 United States Supreme Court decision that permits a defendant to plead guilty to take advantage of a plea offer while claiming to be innocent. I usually utilize this plea procedure where the evidence is substantial, the defendant doesn’t recall what happened and doesn’t want to go to trial.

The critical language in an Alford plea is that the defendant admit that the prosecution has such evidence that there is a substantial liklihood that if a jury were to hear this evidence, they would convict. But the plea also allows the defendant the right to proclaim he is innocent.

This is what Echols, Misskelly and Baldwin did. They technically admitted they were guilty so the judge could impose a sentence, but then said they are innocent. This plea arrangement allows the prosecution to close this case with convictions. It also allows the defendants to hold their heads high while professing their innocence. But it  deprives the defendants from suing the state for wrongful conviction or any other tortious claim they could make.

And the West Memphis Three are on ten years unsupervised probation. No reporting to any probation officer. The purpose of unsupervised probation is to monitor the file. If any one of them is arrested for a new offense or a violation of probation, then the court will be notified and that probationer could be returned to prison for 21 years. 

This quirk in the law allowed all the parties to save face.

But what about Steven Branch? Christopher Byers? Michael Moore? Did the Alford plea deliver  justice? The prosecution says it did. That is why the prosecution is closing its file. There is(are) no other suspect(s) to prosecute.

And what about the West Memphis Three? How many people can say they pled guilty, were sentenced, but still are innocent? Well, actually, there are many who have been convicted, sentenced and still claim they are innocent. The prisons are bursting at the seams with innocent prisoners. Ask them.

And this is why we have the Innocence Project. It took dedication and a sharp focus on the issues to bring about what is perceived by most as justice.