The "Alford" Plea and the West Memphis Three
|The West Memphis Three|
This is the land of the Alford plea. In this rarely used procedure, the accused tenders a technical guilty plea through which he maintains his innocence while acknowledging that the prosecutor has evidence sufficient to convict him, of something...
Used following a mistrial, for example, or upon remand for a new trial, due to the always sea-changing grounds of "newly discovered evidence", the accused is prompted to accept this plea in exchange for a charge reduction, immediate release from incarceration, or dismissal of some of the more serious among an array of charges.
The Alford plea received media attention last year upon the release of the notorious "West Memphis Three" from Arkansas prisons after serving 18-years of their capital sentences for the murders of three young boys in Arkansas in 1993. One of the defendants, Damien Echols, formerly on Death Row, published his memoir, Life After Death, about his Job-like life, and is now the subject of a new documentary, West of Memphis, scheduled for wide release on Christmas Day.
The Alford plea was accepted by each of the West Memphis Three thus, each defendant pled guilty while maintaining their innocence relative to the grisly murders; the three were released for time served, but not vindicated.
The plea was fashioned by the United States Supreme Court in the case of North Carolina v Alford, decided by the Court in 1970. In that case, the accused maintained his innocence in the face of first degree murder charges largely based on circumstantial, but nevertheless damaging, evidence. Rather than face the death penalty, Alford agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder; the trial court accepted the plea, even without Alford's confession of guilt.
As a general rule, a court will not accept a guilty plea without an actual confession of guilt. SCOTUS fashioned the Alford plea as a flexible compromise to resolve situations where:
[f]aced with “grim alternatives,” the defendant's best choice of action may be to plead guilty to the crime, and the courts must accept the defendant's choice made in his own interests. [Justice Byron White]In the case of the West Memphis Three, both newly discovered evidence and DNA testing aided the Defendants' cause; a cause celebre that picked-up steam through early-era social media, drawing the attention of celebrities such as Johnny Dep, and rock stars like Eddie Vedder, Metallica, Slash, and the demigod, Henry Rollins.
Reasonable doubt seeped into the West Memphis case throughout the appeal process. There was a huge evidentiary chasm wherein the prosecutor's theory -that the defendants ritually slaughtered three young boys right where the corpses were discovered on the banks of a creek that ran through the Robin Hood Hills- fell apart in the long-run due to a complete absence of blood or other physical evidence tying any of the Defendants to the murders.
Experts that examined the evidence post-trial opined that the cuts on the bodies were more consistent with animal predation [turtles] than with the serrated knife admitted into evidence at the trial. Mr. Echols' trial, however, was all about Satanic rituals rather than the markings of a common swamp predator.
Looking back nearly 20-years later, there is a consensus among legal professionals that the police investigation was botched, and the court-appointed criminal defense lawyers for the defendants were ineffective, ignoring alibi witnesses and failing to really develop available defenses.
The West Memphis Three were fortunate to secure real legal counsel on appeal. Appellate counsel had the case heading back to the trial court.
Rather than resurrect the rumored Satanic rituals and the local trailer park skater-trash culture from the mid-1990s that tore-out the soul of West Memphis, the prosecution agreed to accept the Alford pleas in exchange for a sentence of time served. Given that the long-healed scars of the families of the murdered boys now have been ripped open, it is difficult to imagine the released convicts being able to sleep comfortably with both eyes closed.
We here at the Law Blogger have observed sentencing hearings where the accused feel compelled to admit to things that are not true in order to secure a guaranteed [i.e. more lenient] result. The Alford plea affords the court sufficient flexibility to accept the compromise plea without an admission of guilt.
Assuming the West Memphis Three were telling the truth all along -that they had nothing to do with the sadistic murders- the real horror of the criminal justice system is that three innocent teenagers can do 54 combined penitentiary years, while a serial murderer lurks among the community of unsuspecting, God-fearing Arkansans, still at large.