‘West Memphis 3’ Freed: What is an Alford Plea?

In one of the most surprising chapters in the controversial story of the “West Memphis 3″, the three Arkansas men — convicted of murder while still in their teens, and now in their 30’s — were set free today.

Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley have essentially agreed to plead guilty to the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, but the three defendants are also still permitted to proclaim their innocence.

Confused yet?

The judge in the Jonesboro, Arkansas case has allowed the “West Memphis 3″ to enter a special plea agreement, commonly known as an Alford plea, which lets an accused person maintain their claims of innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution has compiled enough evidence that a jury could return a conviction on the crime charged. There’s some good background and discussion on this kind of plea here on CNN.com.

Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelly were given time served for their charges after the judge accepted their new plea bargains, and all three are under suspended sentences after being set free, this according to MyFoxMemphis, which quotes prosecutor Scott Ellington saying after today’s proceedings: “I believe this case is closed.”

The Alford plea gets its name from the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case Alford v. North Carolina, in which the Court upheld this specific kind of agreement between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant. In that decision, the Court declared:

    “An accused may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even though he is unwilling to admit participation in the crime, or even if his guilty plea contains a protestation of innocence, when, as here, he intelligently conclude that his interests require a guilty plea and the record strongly evidences guilt.”