Deal Frees ‘West Memphis Three’ in Arkansas By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON August 19, 2011
JONESBORO, Ark. — The end, if it can be called that, came all of a sudden. After nearly two decades in prison for the murder of three young boys, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three, stood up in a courtroom here on Friday, proclaimed their innocence even as they pleaded guilty, and, minutes later, walked out as free men....
Under the terms of a deal reached with prosecutors, Mr. Echols, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelley leave as men who maintain their innocence yet who pleaded guilty to murder, as men whom the state still consider to be child killers but whom the state deemed safe enough to set free.
Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that there was enough evidence to call a hearing to determine whether to have a new trial. The hearing was scheduled for this coming December.
But it was less than three weeks ago that lawyers representing Mr. Echols began working on a deal to offer to prosecutors that would free the men.
Under the seemingly contradictory deal, Judge David Laser vacated the previous convictions, including the capital murder convictions for Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin. After doing so, he ordered a new trial, something the prosecutors agreed to if the men would enter so-called Alford guilty pleas. These pleas allow people to maintain their innocence and admit frankly that they are pleading guilty because they consider it in their best interest.
The three men did just that, standing in court and quietly proclaiming their innocence but at the same time pleading guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murder. The judge then sentenced them to 18 years and 78 days, the amount of time they had served, and also levied a suspended sentence of 10 years.
The prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, said in an interview that the state still considered the men guilty and that, new DNA findings notwithstanding, he knew of no current suspects.
“We don’t think that there is anybody else,” Mr. Ellington said, declaring the case closed.
Asked how he could free murderers if he believed they were guilty, he acknowledged that the three men would likely be acquitted if a new trial were held, given the prominent lawyers now representing them, the fact that evidence has decayed or disappeared over time and the death or change of heart of several original witnesses. He also expressed concern that if the men were exonerated at trial, they could sue the state, possibly for millions of dollars.
“I believe that with all the circumstances that were facing the state in this case, this resolution is one that is palatable and I think that after a period of time it will be acceptable to the public as the right thing,” Mr. Ellington said.
'West Memphis Three' -- Convicted Of Killing Boy Scouts -- Free After Serving 17 Years In Prison by David Lohr 8/19/11
After serving 17 years behind bars for the brutal murder of three children in eastern Arkansas, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin -- dubbed the "West Memphis Three" -- have been released from prison.
"They will be free men ... on suspended sentence,” prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington told reporters during a Friday press conference.
"Only time will tell as to whether this was the right decision."
All three men had been imprisoned since 1994, when they were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.
Prosecutors alleged the trio killed the children in Robin Hood Hills on the morning of May 6, 1993, as part of a satanic ritual. According to police, the boys' bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch. Each had been hogtied with his own shoelaces.
At the time of their arrests, Baldwin was 16. Misskelley was 17, and Echols was 18.
Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 40 years, and Baldwin was sentenced to life.
DNA testing was not available at the time of the defendants' trials. In 2007, it was found that DNA collected at the crime scene did not match that belonging to any of the three men. In November 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled that all three could present new evidence in court.
A new court date had been set for December, but on Thursday Judge David Laser ordered all three men transported to Jonesboro for today's surprise hearing. In a brief statement released to the press, Laser only said that the hearing was to "take up certain matters pertaining to the cases" of the three defendants.
Experts believe both sides have entered into a complex legal agreement, in which the three men have entered into so-called Alford pleas.
"The plea means that you maintain your innocence but you believe there is a substantial likelihood that a jury will find you guilty so you are pleading guilty per State v. Alford," Anne Bremner, a Seattle attorney and legal analyst, told The Huffington Post. "The effect of the corresponding finding of guilt by the court is the same as with a straight guilty plea."....
West Memphis 3 confession, witness corroboration and physical evidence