The West Memphis Three and their Alford Plea:
September 20, 2011
On August 19, 2011, a plea deal nothing short of remarkable was struck in a case that has held the attention of the town of West Memphis, Arkansas and arguably the nation for over 18 years. In a crafty maneuver exemplifying the skills of legal advocacy, attorneys from both sides of the very publicized legal case negotiated a plea deal called the Alford Plea, finally putting a highly controversial murder case to rest. The following is a brief synopsis of the case that shocked a nation, paired with exclusive personal input from the attorneys who negotiated the deal, exhibiting a rare instance of true legal compromise.
In May of 1993, the lifeless bodies of three second grade boys were found in a muddy ditch in Arkansas. Their cold legs were hogtied to their mutilated bodies with their own shoelaces. Understandably so, the small conservative town of West Memphis, Arkansas boiled over with outrage and fear. Overnight, a media circus engulfed the rural town in Crittendon County. The community rallied around the broken families of Steven Branch, Christopher Bryers and Michael Moore and turned indignantly to their local law enforcement for swift justice.
Many contend that the investigation that followed was ripe with suspicious holes and errors. The case was mired with accusations of improper crime scene techniques, lackluster police investigation and misguided disdain for three reclusive teenagers. In response to the uproar, the local Sheriff’s office was undoubtedly pressured into finding an immediate scapegoat. Nearly 20 years later, the nation is still riveted by the story.
Shortly after the bodies were discovered, attention was on local smart-mouthed teenager, Damien Echols and his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. At the time, Echols was known and denigrated for his black clothing, interest in heavy metal music and apparent lack of respect for authority. For many teenagers, this description might land them in detention, but for Echols, it arguably landed him on death row.
Throughout the murder trial, the three accused teenagers maintained their innocence. Their indignant pleas could scarcely be heard over the outraged community that hungered for justice.
Like any American community, the citizens of West Memphis were horrified by the gruesome tragedy haunting their backyards. They needed answers and they needed a culprit. The fate of the teenagers who came to be known as the West Memphis Three was all but sealed.
Over the next year, the prosecution and defense battled a respectable legal war. Each legal team was faced with an insurmountable task. The prosecution was charged with crafting an ironclad legal case while their friends and neighbors watched by attentively. The defense had the undesirable task of deflecting the responsibility of a gruesome crime to an unknown assailant.
Despite a litany of evidentiary issues and their adamant claims of innocence in May of 1994, the three teenagers were convicted of murder. Echols and Baldwin were convicted of three counts of first degree murder while Misskelley was convicted of one count of first degree murder and two counts of second degree murder. Echols was subsequently sentenced to death while Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences.
Roughly a year after the bodies of the three second graders were discovered, the West Memphis community took a sigh of relief. The teenage boys were most likely in shock, having been convicted of such heinous crimes, especially when other viable suspects walked free.
The three teenagers swiftly appealed their convictions. Over the next 18 years the three fought for the opportunity to have a new trial and presumably, prove their innocence. From documentaries such as Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, to financial assistance funds and news specials, all the way to clothing and pins exclaiming “Free the West Memphis Three” (http://freewestmemphis3.org), America’s interest in the developing story was evident. The national community grew more restless in the face of apparent injustice. Eventually, some family members of the slain boys publicly voiced their support for the three accused teens.
Where it really gets interesting:
In November of 2010 the three received a remarkable break from the state Supreme Court. After new DNA evidence failed to connect the three to the atrocious crime, the court ruled that the three could present new evidence at the trial level in an effort to establish their innocence.
As both sides waited for a decision as to whether the three would get a new trial, a historical legal deal was made. Steven Braga, a D.C. Attorney from the Echols defense team proposed a rare and intriguing idea, an Alford plea. Essentially, an Alford plea is an “explicit assertion of innocence while pleading guilty.” The three refused to admit to any criminal act but conceded that the state has evidence to be used against them.
The Alford plea is treated as a guilty plea for sentencing, yet allows the individual using it to maintain their innocence. The Alford Plea is similar to a plea of nolo contendre, but they differ in a few major ways. The Alford plea unambiguously maintains innocence while a nolo contendre plea simply does not admit guilt. Additionally, a plea of nolo contendre avoids estoppel in later civil litigation while the Alford plea does not. 
The Alford plea originated in a 1970 Supreme Court case where Henry Alford was indicted for first degree murder. Though he maintained his innocence, Alford was aware that witness statements and evidence would not bode well on his potentially approaching criminal trial. Stuck in a difficult position, Alford made history. When asked if he wanted to plead guilty, Alford answered “I pleaded guilty on second degree murder because they said there is too much evidence, but I ain’t shot no man, but I take the fault for the other man. We never had an argument in our life and I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn’t they would gas me for it, and that is all. . . I’m not guilty but I plead guilty.” N. Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 28 (U.S.N.C. 1970)
During an email conversation with the author of this article, attorney Steven Braga said, “[t]he Alford plea was the only compromise I could come up with to try to bridge the gap between the State’s absolute refusal to drop the charges and the Three’s absolute demand to maintain their innocence of crimes they did not commit.” Braga’s valiant effort and humble legal proposition succeeded. With the State’s acceptance of the Alford plea deal, he found what he was looking for, a “compromise to try to save my client’s life and free him from prison.”
When presented with the deal, Jonesboro, Arkansas prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington recognized the opportunity to put a nearly 20-year-old case to rest. Rejecting the unfathomable possibility of facing a trial within the next few months, he invited defense counsel to come back with an offer to resolve the entire case. Like Braga, Ellington recognized that this compromise was less than ideal, but effectual. Ellington was willing to speak on the matter with The Jeffersonian and explained that “[t]he state would get the guilty plea that it wanted and the defendants could continue to assert their innocence as convicted felons.” He went on to clarify that “[i]t certainly was not a perfect resolution to the case for the state but it was much better than having three trials, trying to convince 36 jurors of the defendants’ guilt using old evidence, failed memories, changed minds, dead witnesses and the parents of two of the victims who now say they believe the defendants are innocent of the crimes.”
Since both attorneys came into the West Memphis Three case in January 2011, Braga and Ellington were relatively free of the emotional ties the original attorneys had to the much-disputed case. It appears that their fresh perspective helped them obtain a model legal compromise wherein all parties left feeling not quite 100% victorious.
This case was a perfect example of the old adage that “a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy.” Ellington put it colorfully when he said, “[w]hen you got to eat a maggot sandwich don’t nibble. It is better to take big bites and get it over with.”
** Special thanks to attorneys Scott Ellington and Steven Braga!