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.

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