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Without very much warning, the infamous trio dubbed the “West Memphis 3” was released from a prison in Arkansas on Friday after 17 years. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were freed after a complex plea deal, known as Alford pleas, were reportedly entered.
The three men were convicted in 1994 as teenagers of the brutal killings of three 8-year old boys in Robin Hood Hills. Prosecutors alleged that the boys were killed 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. Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 40 years, and Baldwin was sentenced to life even though no evidence connected the three to the crime.
Over the years, three documentaries have been made on the West Memphis Three, pointing out the inconsistencies in the case. The small town of West Memphis, Arkansas was ill-equipped to handle the triple homicide and, according to some, wanted to pin the murders on someone quickly without doing much investigation.
“They will be free men … on suspended sentence,” prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington told reporters during a Friday press conference about the West Memphis Three. “Only time will tell as to whether this was the right decision.”
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. DNA evidence on one of the shoelaces did match one of the victims’ stepfather, who many allege is the true killer. The DNA was not on the shoelaces used to bind his stepson but rather one of the other boys that were murdered.
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 that the Alford plea was used. An Alford plea means that the trio maintains their innocence while admitting that there is a substantial likelihood that the jury will convict. Many are speculating that the state wanted to release these men without admitting their mistake. The plea also makes it more difficult for the trio to sue the state over wrongful imprisonment.
“It’s not perfect,” Echols said in a press conference following the hearing. “It’s not perfect by any means but at least it brings closure to some areas and some aspects.” Echols added that he was “still very much in shock [and] still overwhelmed.”
“We can still bring up new evidence; we can still continue the investigations we [have] been doing,” said Echols. “We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it.”
But Baldwin said he only took the deal to rescue Echols from death row.
“This was not justice,” Baldwin said. “In the beginning we told nothing but the truth — that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it. We had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is say, ‘Hey we will let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that is not justice anyway you look it. They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take the deal from the get-go. However, they are trying to kill Damien, and sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody.”
John Mark Byers, the father of one of the children killed in 1993, said he believes Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are innocent, adding that he is angry with the way the pleas are being handled.”This is not right, and the people of Arkansas need to stand up and raise hell. … Just because they admit to this today, it’s not over,” Byers said.
Over the years, the West Memphis Three have had a number of vocal celebrity supporters like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Metallica and the Dixie Chicks.