Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin — better known as the “West Memphis 3” — are free men today, having accepted a rather complicated deal that required them to plead guilty to the crime. The trio have spent half their lives behind bars for a crime they did not commit.
“It’s not perfect,” said Echols at the post-release press conference, referring to the deal, “but at least it brings closure to some aspects. We can still try to clear our names but now from the outside.”
Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were convicted in 1993 of murdering and then mutilating the bodies of eight-year-olds Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, allegedly as part of a satanic ritual. Echols received a death sentence, while Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison plus two 20-year sentences. Baldwin was sentenced to life.
The confusing legal arrangement — better known as an “Alford plea” — required them to state that the prosecution “could likely convince a judge or jury” that they were guilty, while permitting them to maintain innocence at the same time. The result is not technically a full exoneration, but hey, they’re no longer in jail. It’s a classic win-win type of scenario.
They were sentenced today by Circuit Court Judge David Laser to 18 years with credit for time served and an additional 10-year suspended sentence.
High-profile support from celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp pushed for their innocence and was not unlike that of other supposedly wrongly convicted criminals, think Mumia Abu-Jamal. That support resulted in the the re-examination of DNA evidence from the crime scene, which appeared to absolve the three men of any wrongdoing.
The grotesque nature of the murders led to a theory about satanic cult activity. Investigators focused their attention on Mr. Echols, at the time a troubled yet gifted teenager who practiced Wicca, a rarity in the town of West Memphis. Efforts to learn more about him, spearheaded by a single mother cooperating with the police, led to Mr. Misskelley, a passing acquaintance of Mr. Echols, who is borderline mentally retarded.
After a nearly 12-hour interrogation by the police, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, though his confession diverged in significant details with the facts known by the police.
Largely on the strength of that confession, Mr. Misskelley was convicted in February 1994. Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted in a separate trial, largely on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders and on the prosecution’s theory that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for the jury foreman, filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.
An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention. Benefit concerts were held, books were written a follow-up documentary was made and the men’s supporters continued to pursue their freedom. Many residents of West Memphis resentedthe presumption that outsiders knew the details of the horrific case better than they did. But in recent years some, though not all, of the victims’ families have begun to doubt the guilt of the three men.
Steve Branch, Stevie Branch’s father, objected to the plea deal, telling the judge “If you go through with this, you’re going to open Pandora’s Box.” But it matters little now. The three men are free and will now attempt to clear their names and start their lives.