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DC Attorney Gets Man Off Death Row

8:59 PM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- Damien Echols, one of the "West Memphis Three", was freed from Arkansas' death row in 2011, and part of the reason he got off was because of an attorney based in Washington, D.C. Stephen Braga joined Echols' defense team in 2009 and decided to use a little-known legal maneuver called an Alford Plea.

"It's very unusual. It's hardly ever used. It had never been used in the history of the state of Arkansas before this case," said Braga.

Braga says he knew he was likely Echols' last chance. The convicted killer had been sentenced to death for the murder of three 8-year-old cub scouts back in 1993. But there were questions about his guilt almost from the beginning. Not only was there no physical evidence, but there were also allegations of a flawed investigation and of prosecutors who perhaps didn't want to admit that they'd been wrong.

"His story was tragic. His case was a travesty of justice. And he just seemed like a young man who needed help," said Braga.

Braga proposed entering an Alford Plea, meaning Echols would be allowed to maintain his innocence. But, technically, he'd still be pleading guilty.

"What I say to people who criticize the Alford Plea is, 'You can't criticize it until you've spent 18 years on death row, 14 in solitary confinement and are in his shoes," said Braga.

Echols had a choice: stay in prison and try to get a new trial, or take the plea and walk free. Echols, and the other two in the West Memphis Three, chose the later. When Echols was released in 2011, he said, "I'm still very much in shock, still overwhelmed. You kind of have to take into consideration that I've spent almost the past decade in solitary confinement."

Braga had saved his life and was by his side the day he got out.

"The feeling was indescribable and the thrill of that moment, you cannot imagine it," said Braga. "It's what made practicing law for 32 years worthwhile."

Echols is now living in Salem, Massachusetts. Braga says it's sweet justice for a man that he believes was the target of a modern-day witch hunt.

"His case really was satanic panic and I think, in one way, he feels comfortable there. I think in another way it's his way of sticking his finger in the eye of all the satanic panic people and saying, 'There's a reason I'm living here and it's all of you who got it wrong," said Braga.

So far, no one else has been charged with the murder of those three little boys.

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