published Friday, August 19th, 2011

Arkansas judge accepts plea deal, frees West Memphis 3

Women hold a sign at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, proclaiming innocence of three Arkansas men convicted in the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis, Ark., children. The three men convicted of the killings are at a hearing Friday that could end with their release from custody after nearly two decades in prison. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Women hold a sign at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, proclaiming innocence of three Arkansas men convicted in the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis, Ark., children. The three men convicted of the killings are at a hearing Friday that could end with their release from custody after nearly two decades in prison. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Photo by Associated Press.
  • photo
    This 2007 photo provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows Damien Echols. Echols, one of three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993, was freed, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Friday, Aug. 19, 2011 after nearly two decades in prison. Supporters of the "West Memphis Three" argued that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, were wrongly convicted in the deaths. (AP Photo/Arkansas Department of Correction, File)
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

JEANNIE NUSS, Associated Press

JONESBORO, Ark. — Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and dumping their bodies in an Arkansas ditch changed their pleas Friday, resolving a yearslong effort to win their freedom.

Under a plea bargain, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were being freed immediately. The boys' families were notified about the pact ahead of time but were not asked to approve it.

The defendants, known by their supporters as the West Memphis 3, agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them.

"I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea," Echols told the judge. Baldwin and Miskelley also reasserted their innocence.

"Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest," Misskelley said.

The three were credited with time served, and Echols is being freed from Arkansas' death row. They were placed on 10 years' probation and if they re-offend they could be sent back to prison for 21 years, Prosecutor Scott Ellington said.

"I believe that it would be practically impossible after 18 years to put on a proper trial in this case," Ellington said.

"I believe this case is closed and there are no other individuals involved," he said.

Baldwin and Echols each pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder. Misskelley pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. The Alford plea allows the men to maintain their claims of innocence.

After the hearings, Baldwin told reporters that he had been reluctant to plead guilty to crimes he maintains he didn't commit, but that he was desperate to secure his release.

"That's not justice, however you look at it," he said.

Echols called his release "overwhelming."

"It's not perfect," he said of the deal. "It's not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects."

He said the West Memphis Three would continue to work to clear their names.

Echols' wife, Lorri, sat in the front row of a crowded courtroom, next to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who became a key supporter of the men after watching a pair of HBO documentaries about the case. Vedder put his arm around her during the proceedings.

The three defendants were expected later Friday at a news conference in the courtroom basement.

Circuit Judge David Laser acknowledged the case was complex, and that both the victims' families and the supporters of the three men convicted had suffered. He said he thought Friday's deal would serve justice "the best we can."

"I don't think it will make the pain go away," Laser said during the court proceedings.

One person yelled "Baby killers" as the three left the courtroom.

The May 5, 1993, killings were particularly gruesome. Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found nude, and hogtied, and rumors of Satanism roiled the community in the weeks following their deaths. Branch and Moore drowned in about 2 feet of water; Byers bled to death and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.

Police had few leads until receiving a tip that Echols had been seen mud-covered the night the boys disappeared. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated Baldwin and Echols in the killings.

"Then they tied them up, tied their hands up," Misskelley said in the statement to police, parts of which were tape-recorded. After describing sodomizing and other violence, he went on: "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.'"

Misskelley later recanted, and defense lawyers said the then-17-year-old got several parts of the story incorrect. An autopsy said there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. Miskelley had said the older boys abducted the Scouts in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.

Misskelley was tried separately, convicted of first- and second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years. He refused to testify against the others and his confession was not admitted into evidence.

Defense lawyers for Echols and Baldwin alleged juror misconduct, saying they heard about the Misskelley confession anyway. Attorneys also said there wasn't enough physical evidence linking the three to the crime scene.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld Echols' conviction and death sentence in 1996, saying there was still enough other evidence to sustain it.

A 1996 HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," drew the attention of celebrities including Vedder and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. They and other celebrities helped fund a legal team that worked to win the three a new trial.

"Why are they innocent?" Vedder said in an interview with The Associated Press last year. "Because there's nothing that says they're guilty."

Last fall, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the three and asked a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA science could aid the men or uphold the convictions.

In upholding Echols' conviction in 1996, the state Supreme Court noted that two people testified Echols bragged about the killings, an eyewitness put Echols at the scene, fibers similar to the boys' clothing were found in Echols' home, a knife was found in a pond behind Baldwin's home, Echols' interest in the occult and his telling police that he understood the boys had been mutilated before officers had released such details.

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amnestiUSAF84 said...

The defendants, known by their supporters as the West Memphis 3, agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them. "I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea," Echols told the judge

No doubt, this plea deal is so the state could avoid having to pay out any money to these men for the 18 years they spent in prison, one on deathrow, for a crime they didn't commit. One of those C.Y.A. bargains? They're live are still ruined. They will remain unemployable. Unless it's some low wage paying job where they still won't be able to support themselves. And 8God* only knows the torture and abuse they endured in prison, having been accused of such a henious crime.

August 19, 2011 at 3:57 p.m.
AlmostAmanda said...

Cbtole, you might want to do a little research on the case. The facts don't support the conviction. They never did. The police, the prosecution, and the jury foreman from the original trial all acted improperly and illegally to convict these three. There is no DNA evidence linking any of the WM3 to the boys' bodies or the crime scene. Most of the evidence was circumstantial and the "confession" was obtained from someone with a very low IQ after hours of constant questioning - well beyond what is usually considered acceptable police practice. Even some of the family members of the victims believe that the WM3 are not guilty and said so today after they were released.

Something horrific happened to those little boys - no one is saying it didn't - but those in charge of finding and convicting them failed at their jobs. They got tunnel vision early on and simply focused on the wrong suspects. Justice has been denied to those three little boys, their families, and the teenagers - now men - who were wrongfully convicted of murder. And you know whose fault it is? The real killer(s) and the idiots who botched the investigation and trial.

August 19, 2011 at 5:40 p.m.
Legend said...

Oklahoma/Arkansas, same. Remdinders of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, falsely accused of rape and murdering Debra Sue Carter. Williamson would spend 18 years of his life on deathrow and driven insane by jailhouse guards continuing taunting and teasing him almost on a daily basis about the murder. The thing is, the real murderer turned out to be one of their most prized confidential informants, and police, prosecutors and even judged, likely knew the truth all along.

August 19, 2011 at 7:24 p.m.
rolando said...

.50BMG works fine.

August 19, 2011 at 7:37 p.m.
lilmisandy said...

Now the justice system is the weakest link when it comes to murder these days and time

August 19, 2011 at 11:42 p.m.
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