International Business Times



West Memphis Three Walk to Freedom

August 20, 2011

West Memphis 3
Jessie Misskelley Jr., from left, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols address reporters after being freed in a plea deal that upended the case of the 1993 killings of three Cub Scouts in Arkansas.

When the storied West Memphis Three walked to freedom 18 years after they were imprisoned for allegedly killing three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, there were crowds of people offering them support, and chanting that justice was finally done. Were they really innocent?

Inside the court room though, the father of one of the boys killed in cold blood protested against the verdict that freed the youths, and was escorted out.

The West Memphis Three -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – had spent almost two decades in prison. They had been arrested for the death of three boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers who went missing on May 5, 1993.

Investigators had found bodies of the missing boys in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis the following day. They had been stripped naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces: their right ankles tied to their right wrists behind their backs, the same with their left arms and legs. Their clothing was found in the creek, some of it twisted around sticks that had been thrust into the muddy ditch bed.

Christopher Byers also had deep lacerations and injuries to his scrotum and penis. Medical examiner concluded that Byers died of blood loss and the other two boys of drowning.

At the time of their arrests, Misskelley, Jr. was 17 years old, Baldwin was 16 years old, and Echols was 18 years old. The trio admitted to the crime after a 12-hour police interrogation, when Misskelley confessed and named Echols and Baldwin. The threesome were tried and convicted of the murders of the boys.

Their conviction and imprisonment were as controversial as their release 18 years later. An HBO documentary called Paradise Lost brought the spotlight on the convicted killers and public sympathy swayed in favor of them. The argument that Misskelley's confession was coerced and that too much had been made out of Echols' strange persona got many supporters, including celebrities like musicians and actors.

It was also pointed out that police had initially nabbed more suspects and that a DNA test at the crime scene, held in 2007, couldn't find any genetic material belonging to any of the convicts.

Eighteen years later, the threesome were freed from jail, and for Echols, who had been sentenced to death, the verdict gave him back his life. And by the day's end, he was celebrating at luxury hotel The Madison, according to a report in the Commercial Appeal. He had the company of two performers that gave his case celebrity status and helped raise funds: singers Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the parents and relatives of the boys killed were seething in anger. "I'm thinking about what kind of sad day this is for the justice system that's going to allow some convicted child murderers to be set free simply by admitting they killed the child," said Steve Branch, father of Steven Branch, Junior, according to WREG.com.

"If the justice system allows this, it's going to open the door for every convicted murderer on death row to have a chance to say 'yes, I killed him' and be set free."

Many people are still puzzled about how the three were set free. "My heart is breaking for the parents of the 3 young boys. All anyone seems to care about is the "West Memphis 3" are being set free. I personally wish they would have went forth with a new trial," wrote a reader on WREG.com.

"Lay out all the facts and quit pointing fingers at the investigators, DA, Judge etc. Everyone says they rushed to judgment. Apparently people have forgotten how emotionally charged everything is when there are children involved. I think we should all pray for everyone involved."

According to the terms of a deal reached with prosecutors, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley leave as men who maintain their innocence yet who pleaded guilty to murder, as men whom the state still consider to be child killers but whom the state deemed safe enough to set free, reported San Francisco Chronicle.

The three men used Alford plea, under which a defendant may choose to plead guilty, not because of an admission to the crime, but because the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to obtain conviction in court.

They were sentenced 18 years and 78 days in prison, the amount of time they had already served.

"Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, Junior entered a plea of guilty to the murders of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore ... I believe it would be practically impossible, after 18 years, to put on a proper case against the defendants in this case," said Craighead County Prosecutor Scott Ellington.

Relishing freedom, Echols said the last 18 years were like hell. "Still very much in shock. Still overwhelmed. You kind of have to take into consideration that I've spent almost the past decade in absolute solitary confinement, so I'm not used to being around anyone," he said, according to Kait8.com.

"We can still bring up new evidence. We can still continue the investigations we've been doing. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference now is that we can do it on the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it."

Baldwin repeated that they were innocent. "This was not justice. 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. 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, (but) only if you admit guilt," he said.

Ellington said Judge David Laser, who had scheduled evidentiary hearings for December, was "most likely going to grant a new trial." He contended that if that were to happen, the defendants would be easily acquitted.

Among new evidence swaying the balance in their favor were two inconsistencies in the body of evidence. The first was that none of the defendants' DNA was found at the crime scene, but instead a hair of the stepfather of one of the victims was found there. Secondly, it was found that Misskelley, who confessed to the crime first and gave away the names of the other two, had a low IQ of 72. It was pointed out that his confession had several inconsistencies in it, like the wrong time of day of the murders.

Even among the parents of the boys killed opinions were divided. While Steve Branch, father of a victim, protested the deal, another father, John Mark Byers, said the defendants were innocent.

"If you go through with this, you're going to open Pandora's Box. ... You're wrong, Your Honor. You can stop it right now before you do it," Branch shouted, according to Commercial Appeal.

John Mark Byers, whose son Christopher also murdered, said he thought the defendants are innocent. "It's a total injustice,'' Byers said. "These three men are being made to plead guilty to something they didn't do," he said.

More Information:
West Memphis 3 Website

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