For the past 18 years, three young men sat in prison for crimes many thought they were wrongly accused of. In lieu of a new trial, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. entered plea bargains which turned them into free men on Friday.
A trio of men who were convicted of the savage murders of three young Cub Scouts got their first taste of freedom in 18 years. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were dubbed the "West Memphis Three", walked out of a courtroom free men on Friday after pleading guilty in exchange for time served. Since the killings of the three 8-year-old boys in 1993, there were high levels of skepticism regarding the evidence against the young men. So many doubts had been raised that the alternative to the plea bargain would have been a second trial in 2012.
The pleas were entered under a legal provision that permitted the three men to retain their innocence while recognizing that prosecutors had sufficient evidence for a conviction according to The State. "Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest," Misskelley stated.
Echols, who is now 36, was sentenced to death in 1994 and was within a mere three weeks of being executed. He kept a sense of defiance on Friday, and accused prosecutors of operating on suggestion and using faulty evidence which resulted in the trio's convictions.
If a new trial would have commenced, there would be a bigger audience and a higher sense of attentiveness to the case. Echols believed that the prosecutors were aware of this and utilized the plea bargain because "they wouldn't be able to pull the same tricks."
According to prosecutor Scott Ellington, it would be "practically impossible" to set a suitable trial into motion after 18 years. A witness who testified about Echol's confession had her honesty publicly questioned by her mother, and a crime lab worker who collected fiber evidence at two of the defendants' homes has since passed away.
"I believe this case is closed, and there are no other individuals involved," Ellington stated.
Since the initial convictions of the three then-teenagers, two of the victims' families sided with the defense. The case even drew attention from celebrities including Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Their attention - along with that of other celebrities - was caught by the 1996 HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." As such the stars assisted in funding a legal team who went to seek a new trial.
The families of the slain boys were informed of the plea bargain in advance, but were not sought after for its approval.
Mr. Echols stated that he and the others would stay on the task of clearing their names entirely. While he was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences and all three of them have spent about half of their lives in prison.
Jason Baldwin stated that "[I will] live my life the best I can and enjoy every moment of it," in response to reporters asking him about his plans about the future. He also said that despite his reluctance to plead guilty to crimes he didn't commit, he did just that in order to spare Damien Echols from death row.
Prosecutor Ellington said that he never assented to a plea bargain of any kind which would in turn throw out the verdicts of two juries.
"Today's proceeding allows the defendants the freedom of speech to say they are innocent, but the fact is, they just pled guilty," said Ellington. In addition, the guilty pleas made by the trio strips them of any right to file a lawsuit against the state.
"I can't say that wasn't part of my thinking in resolving this case," Ellington pointed out.
"Your honor, if you go through with this, you're going to open Pandora's box," Steve Branch - the father of one of the victims said to the judge in protest following the entering of the pleas. "You're wrong, your honor. You can stop this right now before you do it."
The trio was placed on 10 years' unsupervised probation, and if any of them get into another bout of trouble, they can go back to prison for 21 years according to Ellington.
"I don't think it will make the pain go away," Circuit Judge David Laser said acknowledging that the case had caused suffering for the families on both sides of the case. He stated that Friday's pact would serve justice "the best we can."
Not everybody is pleased with the outcome of Friday's plea bargain, and one person screamed "baby killers" as the three men exited the courtroom.
The murders themselves were so brutal and nightmarish that they conjured rumors of Satanism and black magic rituals which shook the community of 30,000 people across the Mississippi River all the way from Memphis, Tenn. The victims - Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore - were discovered both hogtied and nude. Branch and Moore had perished by drowning in a drainage ditch in roughly two feet of water where as Byers bled to death and even had his genitals mutilated and partially taken off.
It wasn't until obtaining a tip that Echols was seen covered in mud the night of the boys' disappearance that police had any break in the case. Jessie Misskelley - who was then 17 and has an I.Q. in the low 70s - inadvertently gave authorities their big break by means of an unexpected confession and implication of Echols and Baldwin.
"Then they tied them up, tied their hands up," Misskelley told police in a statement which was partially tape-recorded.
"And I saw it and turned around and looked, and then I took off running. I went home. Then they called me and asked me, 'How come I didn't stay? I told them, I just couldn't.'" he continued after speaking of acts of violence including sodomy. Misskelley subsequently recanted, and lawyers for the defense stated that much of what he confessed was indeed wrong. Autopsy evidence did not indicate any signs of sexual abuse, and the statement of the older boys who abducted the scouts that morning was also proven false as they were in school.
Misskelley ended up receiving a separate trial from the other two defendants, and refused to testify against Baldwin and Echols. His confession was not utilized as evidence either.
Just this past fall, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the trio and requested that a judge acknowledge allegations of misconduct by the jury as well as implement new DNA science which could either help the three men or keep their convictions in tact.
"Why are they innocent?" Vedder said while being interviewed by the Associated Press last year. "Because there's nothing that says they're guilty."