Posted on 1/8/18

In Texas courts, a defendant can plead nolo contedere (“no contest”) to certain charges. Similarly, other states and the Federal jurisdiction of the United States allow for Alford pleas. The pleas are similar in that there is no straight admission of guilt. They differ in that nolo contendere is not an admission of guilt but the defendant nonetheless accepts the punishment, whereas the Alford plea is a guilty plea wherein the defendant does not admit to committing the criminal act. These pleas are useful in deterring potentially harsh penalties and in protecting a defendant from being liable for other crimes.

The West Memphis Three

Perhaps the most famous Alford plea case was the West Memphis Three, in which the three defendants negotiated a plea bargain by pleading an Alford plea and walking out of jail in return for the promise not to sue for wrongful imprisonment.

In May of 1993, the bodies of three missing eight-year-old boys were found in a ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas. The bodies were naked and one body had numerous lacerations, including distinct lacerations in the genital area. The extreme circumstances and the gruesomeness suggested that the boys were killed by a cult.

This led police to three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin. The three were from families that lived below the poverty line. Two of them dropped out of school and were working locally. They were into heavy metal music and wore black, garnering the label of “Satanists.”

Some offhanded comments, particularly from Misskelley friend Buddy Lucas, led police to believe that Misskelley was in a cult and the other two joined. There were instances, reportedly, of Misskelley’s confessions to the police and failed polygraph tests. Shortly thereafter, the case went to trial and all three were convicted. Two received life in prison without parole while the other, Misskelley, was sent to death row.

As time went on, it was discovered that there were numerous improprieties with the case. This triggered many to speak out about the West Memphis Three, as they were called. This included the Dixie Chicks. A movement was made to fundraise for the legal teams representing the three to prove their innocence. Prominent Northeast law firm Ropes & Gray sent a pro bono criminal defense lawyer to help with the case.

In 2010, with the advent of better DNA evidence, the circumstances changed dramatically. New DNA evidence suggests thatTerry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys committed the murders. There is DNA evidence of his hair found on rope that tied the boys together. With the new evidence, the West Memphis Three cut a plea deal with the prosecutor and, after 18 years, were released from prison.


Movie producers produced films about the case and, as mentioned, others stepped in to fight on behalf of the West Memphis Three. Books and blogs take positions on the case, with some still claiming that the West Memphis Three were the killers. Regardless, the standard for criminal conviction is beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, even if you believe that the West Memphis Three are killers, reasonable doubt exists. As such, the Alford plea was proper.

Accused of a crime? Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified Texas criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Robert Hickerson)


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