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Three teens were convicted in the early 90s of the sexual assault and murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.However, the teenagers always maintained their innocence and after nearly 20 years behind bars — and the help of some Hollywood heavyweights like Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin walked out of prison free men in August 2011.
But their eventual path to freedom was full of tricky legal maneuvers, the biggest of which was an agreement with prosecutors that required them to plead guilty while still maintaining their innocence.
An Alford Plea essentially lets defendants maintain their innocence — they say they didn’t do it but admit the state has enough evidence to prove their guilt — while still technically pleading guilty.
After the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously decided to grant the West Memphis 3 a new trial, the trio invoked an Alford Plea because it could help them avoid a risky new trial.
“So, there was a risk when it went back to trial that the [jury] would still vote for guilt,” West Memphis 3 attorney Patrick Benca told Business Insider in an email. “There was the belief that maybe one or two of the jurors would stick to their guilty beliefs and hang the jury, which would have resulted in further delay to getting Damien, and the others out of prison. You can still research comments on the Internet and find these rogue opinions. Our deal got Damien and the others out now without having to address that risk.”
Despite the fact the plea got them out of the jail, it didn’t exonerate them. In the eyes of the law, the trio pleaded guilty to murdering Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore and will always carry the record to prove it.
But the case is far from over.
Now that the three are free men once again, their team has set about finding out who actually murdered the three 8-year-old boys.
West of Memphis, the latest documentary about the case, suggests Branch’s stepfather Terry Hobbs should be investigated for the crime.
Attorneys for Echols said in January Hobbs’ nephew told friends “my uncle Terry murdered those three little boys,” Fox 16 reported at the time.
Hobbs has fought the allegations, calling them “more of a publicity stunt” than anything else.
But earlier this fall, prosecutor Scott Ellington agreed to look into the trio’s allegations against Hobbs, according to the Free West Memphis 3 blog.
And it appears he has every right to do so. According to Benca, the West Memphis 3’s Alford Pleas don’t prohibit prosecutors from pursuing, and possibly convicting, additional suspects.
“It’s no different than a prosecutor pursuing other leads when someone is found guilty,” Benca said. If new evidence develops, he said, there’s “an obligation to make things right.”