Plea bargaining is something that often happens in the criminal justice system. It saves a lot of cases from going to trial by the defendant pleading guilty and agreeing to take a specific sentence. After looking into the case of the West Memphis Three and the 1993 murders of three young Arkansas boys a different type of plea came to my attention, the Alford plea. After spending 18 years in prison Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin were released because of this plea.
In the case of the West Memphis Three, the defendants claimed their innocence from day one and refused to take any type of deals. One of the defendants, Jessie Misskelley, who is mentally handicapped, was coerced into making a false confession. This confession along with the prosecution’s claim that they killed the young boys in a satanic cult ritual was the basis of the State’s case. The three boys, who at the time were teenagers, believed that in court they would be found not guilty because they did not commit these crimes. Damien Echols was tried alone, found guilty, and sentenced to death, while Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were tried together. Jason Baldwin was found guilty and was sentenced to life without parole and Jessie Misskelley Jr. was also found guilty and sentenced to life plus 40 years. Throughout their time in prison the West Memphis Three attempted to appeal their convictions and each time they were denied by the same judge who handled the case from the beginning. Also while in prison, the three gained support from people all over the world, including many celebrities, who believed in their innocence. After new DNA evidence surfaced the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered hearings on new trial motions for Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin.
During these hearings the three defendants withdrew their previous “not-guilty” pleas and changed them to “guilty”. Although the three men changed their pleas to guilty they all did so while maintaining their innocence. As I mentioned before, they were able to do this through an Alford plea. In an Alford plea, the criminal defendant does not admit the act, but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charge. This is basically a guilty but innocent plea in the case of the West Memphis Three. This form of plea was a result of North Carolina v. Alford more than 40 years ago. Although the Alford plea is rarely used it resulted in the three men being able to walk free after spending so many years in prison. Despite what it may seem like, the three men were not exonerated and are not considered to be wrongly convicted which poses the question of whether this is justice or not? In this case, innocent men are being released back into society but they had to say they say they were legally guilty in order to do so. This charge will continue to be on their record and the person who is actually responsible for the crime is still in society.