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Nearly 30 years ago in West Memphis, Arkansas, three teenage boys were convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in an alleged satanic ritual. The teenagers pled not guilty, but the evidence was stacked against them. Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were sentenced to life plus 40 years without parole. Damien Echols, the eldest, was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Now, after all three have been free for 10 years on an "Alford plea," Echols has recently appealed to enter DNA evidence into the court in hopes to exonerate him from the conviction.
A number of developments in criminal procedure served to drag out this infamous case. To begin, the teenage defendants' attorneys filed multiple appeals, each of which set back the ultimate sentencing and kept the convicts in prison for nearly 18 years pending resolution.
Then in 2007, new DNA evidence was found that was not connected to any of the defendants and could potentially clear them. It took until 2010 for a judge to even consider whether the DNA evidence could be used to exonerate the teenagers.
In 2011, the three were released from prison on a special plea deal, which made the hearings for DNA testing unnecessary. An Alford plea is an attempt to maintain your innocence when all evidence is stacked against you. Defendants who use it are essentially agreeing that there is enough evidence to prove they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — without admitting that they are guilty. It is very rarely used and must be accepted by the judge with proof of proper counsel.
Using the Alford plea, the attorneys for the West Memphis 3 were able to secure releases for their clients in 2011. However, because the Alford plea has the practical effect of a guilty plea, the defendants were not exonerated, and the conviction remains on their record.
Finally, in 2021, Echols' attorney was allowed to access the DNA — which was perfectly intact and ready to be processed. Now, Echols has appealed to a judge who denied processing the DNA, meaning that at the moment, he cannot be exonerated.
The current issue revolving around the DNA testing is with a habeas statute. In Arkansas, a habeas petition is only allowed to those who are in custody. The West Memphis 3 had been released from custody, and therefore are unable to use it. Echols says he will keep working on his exoneration, and, in turn, he may also be able to help exonerate Misskelley and Baldwin.
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