Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Memphis Three" Plead Guilty (In a Way) and Go Home

After almost twenty years in prison, three young boys known as the "Memphis Three" were released from prison last week. In a scene reminiscent of the Kerry Max Cook plea deal (a case in which the defendant was later established to be innocent as a result of DNA testing), the three plead guilty in return for their freedom. The case dates back to 1993 and the horrific murder of three 8 year old boys.

It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.

After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.

Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution’s argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury’s foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.
After much pressure, the Arkansas Supreme court ruled last year that there was enough evidence to call a hearing to determine if there should be a new trial. The hearing was scheduled for December 2011. Instead of moving forward with a case the prosecution knew it would lose, however, a deal was struck.

Under the seemingly contradictory deal, Judge David Laser vacated the previous convictions, including the capital murder convictions for Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin. After doing so, he ordered a new trial, something the prosecutors agreed to if the men would enter so-called Alford guilty pleas. These pleas allow people to maintain their innocence and admit frankly that they are pleading guilty because they consider it in their best interest.

The three men did just that, standing in court and quietly proclaiming their innocence but at the same time pleading guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murder. The judge then sentenced them to 18 years and 78 days, the amount of time they had served, and also levied a suspended sentence of 10 years.

The prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, said in an interview that the state still considered the men guilty and that, new DNA findings notwithstanding, he knew of no current suspects.

“We don’t think that there is anybody else,” Mr. Ellington said, declaring the case closed.

Asked how he could free murderers if he believed they were guilty, he acknowledged that the three would likely be acquitted if a new trial were held, given the prominent lawyers now representing them, the fact that evidence has decayed or disappeared over time and the death or change of heart of several witnesses. He also expressed concern that if the men were exonerated at trial, they could sue the state, possibly for millions.
Read the entire New York Times article here.

As with so many other cases, it is interesting to see how the courts can permit Alford pleas that directly contradict the established boundaries of such agreements as laid down by the Supreme Court. In North Carolina v. Alford, the Supreme Court stated that a defendant could plead guilty in return for some benefit, such as a reduced sentence, while continuing to maintain his or her innocence. The Court inserted a caveat, however, requiring the “record before the judge contain[] strong evidence of actual guilt” to ensure the rights of the innocent are protected and guilty pleas are the result of “free and intelligent choice.” The use of an Alford plea in the Memphis Three case, a case where the prosecutor admitted the evidence was insufficient to convict, brings the constitutionality of such modern day plea bargaining into question once again.
Read an article regarding the constitutionality of modern day plea bargaining here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Espionage, Incarceration, and Plea Bargaining in Georgia

The New York Times has a very interesting article regarding espionage, incarceration, and incentives to plead guilty in Georgia.

TBILISI, Georgia — Last week, several days after the photographer Giorgi Abdaladze confessed to selling classified documents to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, he was released without being sentenced to a prison term or even given a fine. After Georgian officials had publicly excoriated Mr. Abdaladze as being a participant in a brazen espionage campaign, his 15-day prosecution ended as abruptly as it had begun.

The brief case against Mr. Abdaladze and three other photographers was a baffling one, even in a season of high Georgian anxiety about covert Russian activities. Because it ended in a plea agreement, like an overwhelming number of criminal prosecutions in Georgia, it will never be resolved in court, and all four of the accused risk spending years in prison if they violate their deal by speaking about it.

It has left behind a deep rift between parts of Georgian society — those who believe Russian agents have been able to infiltrate the closest circles around President Mikheil Saakashvili, and those who believe the government has entangled innocent people in its claims against Russia. Western officials, who must weigh whether to confront Russia over a series of Georgian charges, have been cautious in their assessment.

“The evidence is more circumstantial than direct, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that there is more,” said a senior Western diplomat, who called the case “a bit of a Rorschach test for this society.”

“The real tragedy in this is corrosion of public trust in law enforcement, and especially the judicial system,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity in keeping with protocol. “People in Western capitals look at this and say, ‘Is this paranoia taken to an illogical extreme? What are you seeing that the rest of us don’t see?’ ”

The photographers, meanwhile, have returned to public life as confessed traitors....

It was a jaw-dropping case from the very beginning, not only because of the way the suspects were detained — plainclothes officers knocked on their doors between 2 and 3 a.m., waking their families and searching the premises — but also because of who they were.

As Mr. Saakashvili’s personal photographer, Irakli Gedenidze, 37, could be seen for years scrambling after the mercurial president, like a shadow with a zoom lens. His wife, Natia, also a photographer, was detained with him but released two days later on bail. Zurab Kurtsikidze, 38, worked for European Pressphoto Agency, a news service based in Frankfurt.

Mr. Abdaladze, 38, worked on contract for the Foreign Ministry but also chased after breaking news; his 2008 photograph of a woman reaching up from the flaming wreckage of a building became one of the iconic images from Georgia’s brief war with Russia.

Soon afterward, Georgia’s Interior Ministry began releasing evidence that the three men — whose longtime friendship is documented on their Facebook pages — were in fact functioning as an underground spy cell.

Mr. Gedenidze and his wife gave confessions almost immediately. In a video recording shown on Georgian news broadcasts, Mr. Gedenidze said Mr. Kurtsikidze had initially purchased pictures on behalf of his photo agency, but then blackmailed him into passing on documents, which he suspected were sent to foreign intelligence agents....

Public pressure over the case was mounting, however. Journalists protested outside the Interior Ministry, demanding that the government release hard evidence to substantiate its case. Mr. Abdaladze, who had hired a prominent lawyer in the political opposition, published a letter saying that the charges were in retaliation for him having distributed photographs of a May 26 rally that had been violently broken up by the police. He vowed to maintain his innocence.

A few days later, as legal teams began preparing for a September trial, the case came to a halt. Lawyers for Mr. Kurtsikidze and Mr. Abdaladze announced that their clients had agreed to plead guilty to espionage. They were released on probation, with conditional sentences ranging from six months to three years. Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tughushi, said that he had met with the defendants while they were in custody and that none of them said they had come under physical or psychological pressure to confess.

In some ways, it was not an unusual outcome. In 2010, 80 percent of criminal cases in Georgia ended in plea agreements, according to a recent report from Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner. Because of tough sentencing practices and a near certainty of conviction at trial — the average acquittal rate in trial courts last year was 0.2 percent — the plea-bargaining system has become difficult for defendants to resist, even if they would like to argue their innocence in court, the report warned.
Read the entire article here.