JONESBORO Three men convicted of the murder of three West Memphis boys have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in a deal with prosecutors that had them released from prison with time already served.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin have been imprisoned since being convicted in the 1993 slayings of Boy Scouts Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers.
In a hearing Friday in Jonesboro, Circuit Court Judge David Laser accepted from all three Alford pleas — a legal mechanism in which guilty pleas are entered but innocence is maintained.
The three men - each dressed in black suits - spoke briefly in answering Laser's questions and verbally professed their innocence when it came time to officially enter the plea.
Afterward, in a news conference in the courthouse basement, Baldwin said he initially didn't want to accept the deal, but that he did so because Echols - the only one of the men to be sentenced to death - "had it so much worse" than the others. Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.
It's not perfect by any means," Echols said. "But at least it brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence and we can still continue the investigations we've been doing. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it."
Echols thanked Baldwin during the news conference and then the pair stood up, embracing each other as cameras flashed and supporters applauded. But Baldwin emphasized that, though he agreed to the deal for Echols' sake, he still harbors resentment toward it.
"This was not justice," he said. "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. And then we had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is to say 'hey, we'll let you go, but only if you admit guilt.
"That's not justice no matter how you look at it. They're not out there trying to figure out who really murdered those boys."
The agreement was announced in front of a packed courtroom shortly after an in-chambers meeting between Laser, the three convicted men and their attorneys. Family and friends filled most of the gallery and a large crowd of spectators waited in the hallway.
Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, sat in the front row beside Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and a few seats down from Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines. Both singers have said they believe the men were wrongfully convicted in their first trials.
But not everyone in attendance believe the men are innocent.
Steve Branch, father of Stevie Branch, stood up as the hearing neared conclusion and urged Laser not to accept the deal.
"You're wrong your honor," he said as deputies escorted him from the room. "You can stop this right now before you do it."
Laser didn't respond and, moments later, accepted the deal, which lowered the charges from capital murder to three counts of first-degree murder for Echols and Baldwin and one count of 1st degree murder and two counts of 2nd degree murder for Misskelley. Per the agreement, a new trial was ordered and then the guilty pleas were entered.
Each man then received a sentence of about 18 years in prison, reflecting the amount of time they have already served behind bars. They each also received a suspended 10-year sentence and Laser warned them that any violations of the law in that span could send them back to prison for a lengthy term.
Laser, after the men had left the courtroom to fill out departure paperwork with the Department of Corrections, addressed the crowd, acknowledging the heated nature of the case but saying the Alford plea, though rare, was in the best interest of the state and the defendants.
He called the case a "tragedy on all sides."
"I don't think it will make the pain go away for the victim's families," Laser said of the deal. "I don't think it will make the pain go away for the defendant's families. I don't think it will take away a minute of the 18 years these men have served in the Arkansas Department of Corrections."
Supporters of the men have argued they were falsely convicted while working to mount legal challenges to the initial convictions. One such challenge had been progressing: Laser was set to preside over a hearing in December in an effort to determine whether new evidence warranted a retrial.
Attorneys said a hair recovered from the crime scene and shoelaces from one of the slain boys had DNA not belonging to Echols, Misskelley or Baldwin. The items were not tested in the original trial.
Friday's developments, however, mean that hearing will not be necessary.
Read tomorrow's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.
Thank you for coming to the Web site of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. We're working to keep you informed with the latest breaking news.