By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
JONESBORO — Three men convicted as teenagers of capital murder in the deaths of three West Memphis second-graders walked free from a courtroom Friday after spending 18 years in prison.
Damien Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley, 36, commonly known as the West Memphis Three, pleaded guilty to reduced murder charges and were sentenced to time served, plus a 10-year suspended sentence.
Echols and Baldwin pleaded guilty to three counts each of first-degree murder, and Misskelley pleaded guilty to one-count of first-degree and two counts of second-degree murder in the 1993 deaths of 8-year-olds Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore.
Baldwin and Misskelley had been serving life sentences and Echols was sentenced to death.
Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser granted the men new trials, then allowed them to enter what is known as an Alford plea, which allows them to maintain their innocence despite pleading guilty and being considered convicted felons. It also shields the state from wrongful prosecution lawsuits.
The judge accepted the pleas in a tense hearing before a packed courtroom. The three defendants, wearing slacks and dress jackets rather than prison garb, appeared calm, though some in the audience cried or made angry outbursts.
Among those seated in the front row were musicians Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, neither of whom spoke. Both have performed at “Free the West Memphis Three” fundraising concerts.
“Baby killers!” one audience member shouted during the hearing.
Steve Branch Sr., biological father of Stevie Branch, stood and yelled, “Judge, if you do this you’re going to open Pandora’s box!” Deputies removed him from the courtroom.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said at a news conference after the hearing the state considers the long-running case over.
Ellington said he agreed to the plea because the three likely would have received new trials in light of new evidence in the case and that they “could very easily have been acquitted” because of the death of witnesses, some witnesses changing their minds and evidence that has “just gotten stale.”
“We believe that it was a necessary and appropriate disposition of this case,” Ellington said. “I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who pled guilty today. That’s why we moved forward.”
Later at a news conference, Echols and Misskelley began by introducing themselves and each saying he had served 18 years in prison “for a crime I didn’t commit.”
Baldwin initially declined comment but later said he resisted the plea deal at first but eventually agreed to it to get Echols off of death row.
“They were trying to kill Damien,” he said.
Echols acknowledge Baldwin’s gesture and the two embraced.
Echols, who has spent the past 18 years on death row, said of being free: “I’m still very much in shock, overwhelmed.”
He said the three could still pursue evidence to clear their names, only now from the outside instead of in prison.
Echols said he believed prosecutors agreed to the plea deal because they would be under much stricter scrutiny at new trials than during the first trials of the three.
“When we went to trial the first time they came in with ghost stories, rumors, innuendo, things that really had nothing to do with the case whatsoever,” he said. “Now they knew the whole world was watching, they would have to come with some sort of concrete physical evidence. They didn’t have any and they knew that.”
Baldwin said that although he accepted the deal, “this was not justice.”
“At the beginning we told them the truth, that we were innocent, and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives,” he said. “Then we had to come here, and the only thing the state would do for us was to say, ‘Hey, we’ll let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that’s not justice no matter how you look at it. They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys.”
Lorri Davis, who married Echols while he was in prison, said she was “thrilled” that the three had been freed.
In a statement later Friday, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said the plea agreement was the local prosecutor’s call.
“I continue to believe that these defendants are guilty of the crimes for which they have now been twice convicted,” McDaniel said, adding that his staff had been preparing for a scheduled December hearing in the case when he learned earlier this week that the prosecutor had accepted a plea agreement.
“As Attorney General, I always respect the discretion and judgment of elected prosecutors. Prosecutors know their cases better than anyone,” he said. “In this case, Mr. Ellington has exercised his discretion in such a way that has led to nine murder convictions that can never be appealed.”
No travel restrictions were placed on the three men. They told reporters they had not formed any long-term plans.
Misskelley was convicted in early 1994, largely based on a confession he gave to police after a 12-hour interrogation, though details of the confession differed in some ways from the facts in the case. Echols and Baldwin were convicted later in a separate trial.
Supporters believe the three were unfairly convicted based on a false confession by Misskelley, misconduct by prosecutors and jurors and a prosecution theory of satanic rituals inspired by the defendants’ appreciation of heavy metal music, their fondness for dark clothing and Echols’ interest in Wicca.
The movement to free the three grew over the years and produced documentary films and books questioning their convictions, as well as fundraisers that attracted the likes of Vedder, Maines and actor Johnny Depp.
In November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing based on new DNA test results and other evidence obtained by the defense. Dennis Riordan of San Francisco, one of Echols’ attorneys, said Friday that ruling turned the tide for the defense.
“Nothing could have happened but for the Arkansas Supreme Court decision. That threw the case open,” he said.
Patrick Benca of Little Rock, another of Echols’ attorneys, was asked whether the pleas made it unlikely that anyone else — in his view the real killer — ever would be charged in the case. He said that was unlikely even if the men had won acquittal in new trials.
“In past experience in these kinds of cases ... it’s hard to get anybody to investigate them after 18 years,” he said.
Capi Peck of Little Rock, co-founder of the group Arkansas Take Action, which fought for the men’s release, acknowledged that “this was not exactly the way we thought it would play out” but said the important thing was that the three were free.
Branch said the plea agreement was “not morally right.”
“They’re going to set a precedent to release all the baby killers, murderers and rapists in prison off of death row. All they got to do is admit their crime and they can walk free,” he said.