“I plead guilty, but I didn’t do it.”
This was the plea deal Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley took in 2011 in order to walk out of prison free men after being convicted in the 1993 murder of three 8 year old West Memphis boys. Since their original arrest, these young men became known as the West Memphis Three as each of them fought against the State of Arkansas to prove their innocence.
The West Memphis Three spent 18 years behind bars before being brought back into the courtroom after DNA evidence was found that linked other men to the murders. Unfortunately, the West Memphis Three were not fully exonerated as each of them had to enter Alford pleas in order to be released from prison and returned to their families. The judge accepted the plea stating that the West Memphis Three maintained their innocence but plead guilty to the murder of the young boys.
When a conviction is overturned, the State Attorney’s Office is given latitude with a choice to re-prosecute an individual or vacate the conviction on the grounds of innocence or insufficient evidence. When the prosecution decides to re-try an individual whose conviction has been overturned, the Alford Plea can become an option. The individual must decide whether or not the prosecution has sufficient evidence to convict. One can either accept the Alford Plea therefore pleading guilty but still maintaining their innocence or risk attending a second trial with the possibility of being re-convicted.
This form of plea bargaining is derived directly from the State of North Carolina vs Alford in 1970. The case states,
“An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.”
The plea is in fact a guilty plea, but means the defendant enters the plea without admitting to the guilt itself. The defendant recognizes the prosecution has significant evidence to secure a guilty conviction, but chooses to plead guilty to a lesser charge; therefore reducing the sentence while maintaining his or her innocence. The defendant is given the sentence and must serve just as one would if a guilty plea was taken.
While the use of the plea is fairly rare, Henry Alford nor the West Memphis Three are not the only ones to have used the Alford Plea.
In 1998, Anthony Murray was convicted of first-degree murder. In 2012, with the help of the Illinois Innocence Project, Murray’s conviction was reviewed and ultimately overturned by an associate judge in Marion County. Unfortunately for Murray, his legal battle would not end with his overturned conviction.
Anthony Murray entered an Alford Plea in order to be released from prison. Discussing Murray’s case, The Illinois Times stated,
“Under the threat that the states attorney would bring him to trial again, in order to gain his freedom Murray was forced to accept a plea to second-degree murder and was released on time served. By pleading to a lesser crime while still maintaining that he was innocent of all charges, the “Alford Plea” allowed him to return home to his mother and family, but certainly left a stain on him and on what the Illinois Innocence Project believes should have been a complete exoneration.”
Much like the West Memphis Three, Murray saw the plea bargain as a way to return to his family. While the plea would leave a mark on his record, the Alford Plea allowed for Murray to go home and begin to enjoy life on the outside once again.
In regards to the specific West Memphis Three case, CBS News had a statement that rings true across the board for all those who choose to accept the Alford Plea stating, “It’s a compromise, pure and simple. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were allowed to continue to insist they were innocent, but they had to plead guilty. In return, they were given freedom and the State got its convictions.”
The Alford Plea is not used on often in a court of law and is not entirely an ideal case regarding an exoneration. But when the Alford Plea is accepted by the judge and the prosecution, it allows for the wrongfully convicted to return to family and begin to adapt to life outside of the dreary prison walls.