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Understanding the West Memphis 3 Plea Agreement

The national story of the West Memphis 3 this week is too interesting to ignore. Three young men - Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols - convicted in 1994 of killing three 8-year-olds in Arkansas were released from prison after entering Alford pleas. The move allowed one of the men to avoid the death penalty.

Three eight-year-old boys - Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers - were reported missing from West Memphis, Arkansas on May 5, 1993. The boys' bodies were found the following afternoon in a drainage canal. They were naked and had been hogtied with their own shoelaces.

There has been widespread criticism of how the police handled the crime scene and the investigation.

After a month had passed with little progress in the case police continued to focus their investigation upon Echols, with whom they were previously familiar as a troubled teen with possible psychiatric issues. They also interrogated Jessie Misskelley Jr., whose IQ was reported to be 72 (making him borderline mentally retarded), alone, without his parents' explicit permission, for 12 hours.

Misskelley apparently "confessed" and implicated Echols and Baldwin during this interrogation but quickly recanted, citing intimidation, coercion and fatigue. Defense lawyers said the then-17-year-old got several parts of the story incorrect.

At the time of their arrests, Misskelley, Jr. was 17 years old, Baldwin was 16 years old, and Echols was 18 years old.

Misskelley was tried separately, and Echols and Baldwin were tried together in 1994. Misskelley did not testify against Echols and Baldwin and his confession could not be admitted against his co-defendants. Thus, the separate trial.

On February 5, 1994, Misskelley was convicted by a jury of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life plus 40 years in prison. The following month, Echols and Baldwin were found guilty of three counts of murder. Echols was sentenced to death; Baldwin to life in prison.

The convictions were upheld on direct appeal.

In 2007, Echols' defense attorneys filed a request in federal court seeking release or retrial, citing DNA evidence linking the stepfather of one of the victims to the crime scene and new statements from that victim's mother. The request for retrial was denied by the trial judge and appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In 2008, it was revealed that the jury foreman on the Echols/Baldwin trial discussed the case with an attorney prior to the beginning of deliberations and advocated for a guilty verdict as a result of his knowledge of the inadmissible Jessie Misskelley statements.

In late 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a lower judge to consider whether newly-analyzed DNA evidence might exonerate the men and to examine the claims of juror misconduct.

As a result of this remand, the court ordered a new trial and the prosecution reached an agreement with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley by which they each pleaded "no contest" to three counts of first-degree murder (as opposed to capital murder in Echols' case) in exchange for a sentence of 18 years and 78 days, the amount of time they had already served. This is known as an "Alford plea", in which the defendant acknowledges that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to secure a conviction but reserving the right to assert innocence. The men were immediately released.

An interesting detail related to the plea: The men also received a 10-year suspended sentence as a result of their plea. This means they are essentially on probation for ten years and can brought back to court and re-sentenced to prison if they re-offend during that time.

After the plea and sentencing hearings, Baldwin told reporters that he had been reluctant to plead guilty to crimes he maintains he didn't commit, but that they agreed to the deal to get Echols off death row. All three men have indicated that they will continue to work to clear their names completely.

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