LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - Three men jailed for the “Satanic” 1993 slayings of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas walked free on Friday after nearly two decades of proclaiming their innocence from behind bars.
Their release, as part of a plea deal after DNA tests failed to link them to the crime and ahead of an evidentiary hearing due in December, came after a hastily-called hearing in the Craighead County District Court in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., known as the “West Memphis Three,” took a bargain known as an “Alford plea” in which they could continue to claim their innocence but pleaded guilty in exchange for an 18-year sentence and credit for time served.
Two had been previously sentenced to life, while Echols was on death row over the deaths of the young Cub Scouts. They were expected to be released later on Friday after the deal was accepted by District Judge David N. Laser.
“As far as the state is concerned, this case is closed,” prosecutor Scott Ellington said, adding the state believes the three are guilty. “I strongly believe that the interest of justice was served today.”
He said Echols and Baldwin pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder while Misskelley pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two of second-degree murder.
Despite the guilty pleas, the defendants maintained their innocence in a post-hearing news conference and said they would continue to seek justice for the victims and try to clear their names.
The deal was “not perfect, by any means,” Echols said.
“But at least it brings closure to some areas, and in some aspects,” he said, sitting beside his beaming wife, Lorri, at a press conference in the courthouse.
“We can still bring up new evidence. We can still continue the investigations we’ve been doing. We can still continue to clear our names. The only difference is now we’re doing it from the outside,” he said, calling his time in prison a “living Hell.”
Police at the time of the murders of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and James Michael Moore had called the killings “satanic” because the children’s naked bodies had been bound and mutilated.
The West Memphis Three, teenagers at the time of the murders, always maintained their innocence in the deaths of the boys in the Arkansas-Tennessee border town of West Memphis, and pressure had been mounting to free the trio.
Families of the victims have been split on whether the men were guilty or innocent. They did not speak in a news conference immediately after the decision, but Stevie Branch’s father had to be removed from the courtroom after interrupting proceedings to object to the deal, witnesses said.
Recent DNA tests did not link the men to the crime scene and, in fact, showed the presence of others who have never been identified.
Since the men’s 1994 conviction, their cause was taken up by activist groups and championed by celebrities such as Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, both of whom were in Jonesboro for the hearing.
Friday’s move was a complicated legal proceeding that protects Arkansas from a potential lawsuit should the men have won a new trial, get acquitted, and sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, Ellington said.
The plea means the defendants acknowledge officially that the state has evidence against them, but can continue to claim their innocence, Ellington said. He called it “most likely” that a judge would have granted them a new trial.
The state believes the defendants could very easily have been acquitted in a new trial due to the deaths of witnesses, DNA tests, changing stories, and stale evidence, Ellington said.
If they were found guilty in a new trial, chances were high they would not be convicted of capital murder and would have had lighter sentences than originally, he said. But he said the state never questioned the guilty verdicts.
“Guilt or innocence was never on the table,” Ellington said.
The decision to take the deal, even though it meant pleading guilty, wasn’t difficult, Echols said.
“I’m just tired,” he said.
Baldwin resisted the deal at first because he felt it would negate attempts to clear his name and prove his innocence, he said. When asked why he finally agreed, Baldwin said it was for his friend on Death Row.
“They were trying to kill Damien,” he said.
Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston