August 22, 2011 6:30 PM
The Ropes & Gray Partner Who Helped Free the West Memphis Three
Posted by Sara Randazzo
Few lawyers can claim to have helped free a convicted murderer from prison. For Ropes & Gray partner Stephen Braga, the accomplishment now peppers his resume twice.
Braga, a white-collar criminal defense litigator, played a pivotal role in arriving at the unusual and unexpected legal maneuver that last week resolved the controversial case involving a trio of Arkansas men known collectively as the West Memphis Three.
The three, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley, spent more than 18 years in prison after being convicted of the brutal killings of three eight-year-old Cub Scouts found dead in a West Memphis drainage canal in 1993.
Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley, who have been fighting to have their convictions overturned ever since, left prison as free men Friday after agreeing to a deal that saw each enter a so-called Alford plea, which allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict them. At the time, Echols was on death row; Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.
For Braga, Friday's events marked the latest twist in an effort that began in 2009—and an almost-unparalleled career highlight.
"There is something you cannot describe about a pro bono effort to get someone out of jail for a crime they did not commit," he says. "If the state had its way, [Echols] would be executed already, which is frightening."
Braga was first contacted about the three men's plight—the subject of documentary films and a cause célèbre among such high-profile supporters as Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, and Eddie Vedder—by Echols's wife, Lori Davis. Davis had read about Braga's 13-year pro bono fight to overturn the conviction of Martin Tankleff, a Long Island man who spent 17 years in prison for bludgeoning and stabbing his parents before the New York State Court of Appeals vacated his conviction in 2007.
Braga, who joined Ropes's Washington, D.C., office in 2008 from Baker Botts, says that his first meeting with Echols left him feeling that "the case was literally an outrage" and, ultimately, that "the gentleman was innocent."
Soon after that meeting, Braga signed on to what he calls the "long-shot" appeal already pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court in which Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley sought a hearing to consider fresh DNA evidence as a first step toward a new trial. The state supreme court ruled in favor of the men last November and set December 5, 2011, as the date for the hearing.
(The other members of the appellate team included San Francisco solo practitioners John Philipsborn and Michael Burt, for Baldwin and Misskelley, respectively; and San Francisco partners Donald Horgan and Dennis Riordan, Braga's cocounsel representing Echols. Providing further assistance were Ropes associates Brieanne Elpert, Ryan Malone, and Kelly O'Connell.)
With the hearing date looming, Braga says he took the lead in preparing the new evidence—which suggested that the men had not been present at the crime scene—to create a compelling case for a retrial. In early August, he dispatched Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca, who was also assisting on the appeal, to ask prosecutors if they would skip the hearing and proceed directly to a retrial.
"They weren't interested in agreeing to a new trial but were interested in discussing a global resolution to the case," Braga says. At first, prosecutors offered to free the men in exchange for a simple guilty plea, a proposal that Braga rejected. He and the rest of the defense team then considered accepting a no-contest plea before proposing the Alford plea. As part of the agreement, the three men cannot sue the state for prosecutorial misconduct.
Braga says it took just 16 days from the first discussions with prosecutors to the moment the men walked free. "I've never seen anything move so fast," he says, adding that Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley had a hard time accepting that the prosecutors were genuine in agreeing to the deal. "Right up until the moment that we went into court, they could not believe it would happen." Once they went before the judge wearing suits and not prison garb, Braga says, "they could literally see it would happen."
Now, Baldwin, 34, Echols, 36, and Misskelley, 36, are on vacation, having traveled someplace that Braga says he can't reveal. After that, as long as they don't break the law, he says, they are free to live their lives as they please.Make a comment