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Week In News: 'West Memphis Three,' 2012 Election

LAURA SULLIVAN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: My name is Damien Echols. I'm 36 years old, and released today from death row for a crime I did not commit.

SULLIVAN: Damien Echols is one of the so-called West Memphis Three, freed yesterday after nearly two decades in prison for the 1993 murders of three children. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays, for a look behind these headlines. Hi, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Laura.

SULLIVAN: The defendants here pleaded guilty, which got them out of prison. But they say they're innocent. How is this possible?

FALLOWS: This is through a special subcategory of plea-bargaining known as the Alford plea, or the Alford doctrine. Essentially, what it means is the defendant says, I didn't actually do it. And in the eternal tribunals, I would be found innocent, but in the courts here and now, I recognize that you have enough evidence, probably, to convict me. I didn't do it, but I know it looks bad.

And therefore, the defendant trades a guilty plea for a lesser punishment than might be the case if he pleaded not guilty and was convicted. So in this case, it was a way of resolving for the moment what had been a very, very controversial case for - throughout these last 18 years, and commuting these sentences to the time already served for these three people.

SULLIVAN: Well, also in the headlines this week is the presidential race. The candidates are trading shots. Jon Huntsman delivered a jab at Rick Perry this week; the twitisphere went nuts. I mean, we must be in full 2012 election swing.

FALLOWS: Indeed. And it's a very, very interesting - in a way, almost unprecedented - moment for the Republicans. On the one hand, the president looks more vulnerable than he has through the preceding part of his - his term. The economy is doing poorly, of course. His popularity ratings are quite low. And so the Republicans have a better - apparent - chance than one would have thought six months or a year ago.

On the other hand, all of the energy in the Republican Party right now seems to be with the more extreme candidates - with Michele Bachmann, with Governor Perry, with Ron Paul - as opposed to people like former Governor Romney and Governor Pawlenty, who has left, and former Governor Huntsman.

And so the challenge for the party is that it doesn't want to be in the position the Republicans were in 1964, when they nominated Barry Goldwater; or the Democrats in 1972, when they nominated George McGovern; or the Democrats in 2004, when Howard Dean was getting all the excitement, because usually candidates from the extreme don't succeed in the general election. And that is the tension we'll see unfolding in these next few weeks and months.

SULLIVAN: On Thursday, Hewlett-Packard announced that it might give up its personal computer division - Hewlett-Packard. That's big news in the tech world, and it seems like big news for Apple.

FALLOWS: Indeed. And I think that of the many lessons you might draw from this news, probably the one that's most important to the industry right now is the overweening power of Apple. Apple is now the only real manufacturer that's having strong growth in its personal computer sales, through its MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs and all the rest. And of course, in tablets, it essentially owns the new segment that is putting such pressure on the personal computer business. So we've seen over the decades moments when particular companies seem to eclipse the sky, and this may be Apple's moment to be doing that.

SULLIVAN: Well, finally, Jim, it's not very often that we get to talk sports with you.


SULLIVAN: But did you see the video of the huge fight that broke out between the Georgetown men's basketball team and the Chinese squad in China? I mean, you've spent a lot of time in China. Is this the end of basketball diplomacy?

FALLOWS: Well, it may be the end for using the Bayi Rockets, a People's Liberation Army team, as a goodwill ambassador in dealing with foreign teams. I saw the clip, and I have a lot of friends in China who went to the game. And it really was shocking. The refereeing was one-sided with many, many more fouls called on Georgetown than on the Chinese team. And the aggression, even from the Chinese perspective, it was all from the soldiers' side.

The significant thing, I think, is this is being treated inside China as a huge embarrassment to China. And I think there'll be consequences for the coaches and players of that team for the black eye, so to speak, that they've given the country, for the bad marks they've given the country. It was supposed to be a very amicable setting.

SULLIVAN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Laura. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.