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Posted Oct. 24, 2011

'West Memphis Three' Lawyer to Teach Short Course at Law School

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Stephen L. Braga, who negotiated the release of the "West Memphis Three," will teach a course starting this week at Virginia Law on defending "actual innocence" cases.

Stephen L. Braga, a lawyer who played the key role in negotiating the release of the “West Memphis Three,” will begin teaching a short course on the case this week at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Braga, a partner in law firm Ropes & Gray's Government Enforcement Practice, will teach a two-week course titled “Innocence Cases: The West Memphis Three” that will explore the  17-year  effort to overturn the 1994 convictions of three teenagers — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — for allegedly murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Ark.

The three maintained their innocence and a wide array of international supporters — notably including Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder,  the Dixie Chicks and director Peter Jackson — sought to draw attention to what they believed were wrongful convictions. Echols had been sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.

Braga became involved in the case, on a pro-bono basis, in the spring of 2009 after Echols and his wife read about Braga’s success in freeing another wrongfully convicted man in New York, Marty Tankleff, in a high-profile murder case.

In August, Braga negotiated a deal to release the West Memphis Three after nearly 20 years in prison. Under the deal, each of the three entered an Alford plea and agreed not to sue the state for prosecutorial misconduct. An Alford plea allows a defendant to maintain his innocence but acknowledge that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him in order to bring a disputed case to an end.

“The resolution of the case with an Alford plea was the only practical compromise I could come up with to secure the defendants’ release from prison while accommodating the state’s intractable refusal to drop the charges and the WM3’s similarly intractable refusal to admit committing crimes they did not commit,” Braga said. “Under the plea, the defendants asserted their innocence in court while technically entering a ‘no contest’-like plea in order to allow the 17-year litigation between the parties to be ended, and — most importantly — to save Damien’s life by getting him off death row.”

Braga’s short course, which will be held Oct. 25-Nov. 4, will rely on the West Memphis Three as a model to illustrate how to defend “actual innocence" cases, or those in which the defense sets out to affirmatively prove that the defendant did not commit the crime in question as a factual matter.

“Prior to conviction, there is a presumption of innocence for every defendant, but after conviction that presumption disappears,” Braga said. “In post-conviction defense work, therefore, a defendant can no longer sit back and rely on this presumption to carry the day for him; instead, he frequently must assume the burden of proving his innocence.  Think of it as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ before conviction, and then ‘guilty until proven innocent’ thereafter.”

Law students taking the course, he said, will gain insight into West Memphis Three case specifically, and into handling wrongful conviction cases generally.

“Students can expect to learn typical causes of, and red flags signaling, wrongful conviction cases, along with the litany of factual and legal strategies for attacking those cases from the defense,” Braga said.

Early in his career, Braga became involved in the pro bono representation of “actually innocent” defendants as a natural outgrowth of his criminal defense practice, he said. Since 1995, Braga has always tried to have at least one of these types of cases in his litigation portfolio.

“There is no more rewarding feeling for a criminal defense lawyer than walking an innocent man out of prison,” he said.