Three Arkansas men, imprisoned for nearly two decades, were freed on Friday as a result of a plea deal reached in their conviction of murdering three Cub Scouts in 1993.
Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, known as the “West Memphis Three,” were tried and found guilty in the deaths of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, each eight years old. Jonesboro, Ark. Circuit Court Judge David Laser presided over a hearing in which an Alford plea was submitted for the trio. An Alford plea is a legal tool in which a defendant may plead guilty, acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence against him, but still maintain his innocence.
“It’s not perfect,” said Echols at a press conference after the hearing. “It’s not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas.”
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Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that new evidence could be presented to the trial court that would prove their innocence. Lawyers later brought new DNA evidence which showed that the three men were not linked with the crime.
John Mark Byers, Christopher’s father, has said that the three were not guilty in the murders of the boys and insists they should be exonerated upon their release. “They’re innocent. They did not kill my son,” he said early Friday. Echols had been sentenced to death in the killings and Misskelley and Baldwin were serving life terms.
All three men were given credit for time served and Echols was freed from death row. However, each of them are on 10 years probation and if they reoffend they could be sent back to prison for as long as 21 years, said prosecutor Scott Ellington.
The case has gained mass notoriety and has become a cause celebre, attracting legal defense funding from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, according to reports. The case was the subject of an HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.
“What greater gift to a filmmaker than to see their work actually having real-world impact,” director Joe Berlinger told the Wall Street Journal.
However, Steve Branch, Stevie’s father, maintains justice was served when the three were first convicted. “Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you and you can walk free for killing somebody,” he told Memphis station WMC-TV.