PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Guilty Plea series: Part 5; U.S. Cases: The West Memphis Three; The Innocence Project has demonstrated a compelling need to expose the disturbing number of convictions in America attributed to guilty pleas rendered by innocent people in America. However, the problem of false guilty pleas is is common to many other jurisdictions, including Ontario, where I reside. I would like to make my own contribution to the Innocence Project's campaign, by running a series of posts taken from this Blog and elsewhere, which vividly illustrates the point. (Many of the posts were based on reports by my friend and colleague the late Tracey Tyler. the Toronto Star's talented legal affairs reporter for many years, until her untimely death. She had no patience for miscarriages of justice.) A common factor in many of the cases in this series is the presence of former doctor Charles Smith, the namesake of this Blog. In each case, the defence lawyer recommended a guilty plea to a lesser offence in order to avoid the ramifications of a conviction on the more serious charge - almost guaranteed by the now notorious former doctor's involvement in the case - in spite of the client's protests of innocence.
POST" I plead guilty, but I didn't do it," published by The Florida Innocence Project on April 16, 2013.
GIST: “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.........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."
The entire post can be found at:
See Wikipedia entry at the link below: Plea deal and release: (2011); After weeks of negotiations, on August 19, 2011, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released from prison as part of a plea deal, making the hearings ordered by the Arkansas Supreme Court unnecessary. The three entered into unusual Alford plea deals. The Alford plea is a legal mechanism that allows defendants to plea guilty while still asserting their actual innocence, in cases where defendants concede that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Stephen Braga, an attorney with Ropes & Gray who took up Echols's defense on a pro bono basis beginning in 2009, negotiated the plea agreement with prosecutors. Under the deal, Judge David Laser vacated the previous convictions, including the capital murder convictions for Echols and Baldwin, and ordered a new trial. Each man then entered an Alford plea to lesser charges of first- and second-degree murder while verbally stating their innocence. Judge Laser then sentenced them to time served, a total of 18 years and 78 days, and they were each given a suspended imposition of sentence for 10 years. If they re-offend they can be sent back to prison for 21 years. Factors cited by prosecutor Scott Ellington for agreeing to the plea deal included that two of the victims' families had joined the cause of the defense, that the mother of a witness who testified about Echols's confession had questioned her daughter's truthfulness, and that the State Crime Lab employee who collected fiber evidence at the Echols and Baldwin homes after their arrests had died. As part of the plea deal, the three men cannot pursue civil action against the state for wrongful imprisonment. Both many of the men's supporters, and opponents who still believe them guilty, were unhappy with the unusual plea deal. In 2011, supporters pushed Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe to pardon Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley based on their innocence. Beebe said he would deny the request unless there was evidence showing someone else committed the murders. Prosecutor Scott Ellington said the Arkansas state crime laboratory would help seek other suspects by running searches on any DNA evidence produced in private laboratory tests during the defense team's investigation. This would include running the results through the FBI's Combined DNA Index System database. Ellington said that, although he still considered the men guilty, the three would likely be acquitted if a new trial were held because of the powerful legal counsel representing them now, the loss of evidence over time, and the change of heart among some of the witnesses.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/