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story.lead_photo.caption (Left to right) Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin prepare to speak to the media after being released following an 18-year imprisonment in the murder of three boys in 1993 in West Memphis. ( Gavin Lesnick)

— 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.

The three men convicted of the 1993 slayings of three West Memphis boys were released Friday after reaching a plea deal in which they plead guilty to lesser charges but maintained their innocence.

Plea deal reached in West Memphis murders

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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.

Gallery: West Memphis Case

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."

Damien Echols' mother told reporters she believes her son will be freed after a hearing Friday.

Damien Echols' mother arrives at court

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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.

Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Chris Byers

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.


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Archived Comments

  • tppt2aolcom
    August 19, 2011 at 12:06 p.m.

    The West Memphis Three case has been settled. They were forced to plead guilty in return for their immediate release from prison. The prosecuting attorney knows they were innocent and held these young men hostage by their current terms of imprisonment. He knows that all of the improprieties and mistakes of the original trials would ultimate overturn the original verdicts. At the same time, once the WM3 were found innocent, they would be able to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment. Just another politician covering his ass. And the real murder is still free. What a perversion of justice.

  • HawgFan
    August 19, 2011 at 12:14 p.m.

    The Alford plea is a 'guilty' plea while maintaining that you are innocent (however that's possible), but it also claims that upon a retrial, the defense is aware that the prosecutor has enough evidence to likely convict. I'm just wondering now, how many more convicted murderers will call up their lawyers and ask if they can enter an Alford plea?

  • Redlab
    August 19, 2011 at 12:37 p.m.

    They took the Alford plea because they know there was evidence that could convict them again in a trial. If the WM3 were so innocent they would not have taken this plea. The law had the right ones and at least they served 198 years but it is still an injustice to those 3 little boys. People are so caught up in the hype especially with the celebrities and even they don't know the entire story. Now the story continues with where are they doing to go and what will they do with their lives, the are convicted felons and murderers. It's not going to be easy having their freedom if you can call it that. They will still be in their own prisons.

  • LRS
    August 19, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.

    Most murders aren't convicted on coerced testimony of a few teens who were questioned without parental supervision or a girl who was trying to save her own skin by pointing the finger... I want to know if they are going to test the step-father to the 1 boy who claims he didn't see him that night but supposedly called the boys out to him per a neighbor... and had the knife with blood on it that he keeps changing his story on... DNA won't lie or be coerced.

  • livex
    August 19, 2011 at 1:01 p.m.

    "They took the Alford plea because they know there was evidence that could convict them again in a trial. If the WM3 were so innocent they would not have taken this plea."

    Nonsense. They made a deal that finally gets them out of prison while allowing the prosecutor to superficially save face. You'd take that deal too, if you were in their shoes. The whole reason this happened so suddenly was that DNA evidence has made it completely clear that this was a wrongful conviction.

  • Redlab
    August 19, 2011 at 1:15 p.m.

    @livex -If I was so innocent I would not have taken the plea. Do not assume what I would do or know because I know much more than you think about this case, that is why I wrote what I did and my comment is not nonsense. This is all I can comment about this case.

  • RBBryant
    August 19, 2011 at 1:22 p.m.

    Question... Can anyone else be charged & tried for the murders of the 3 children (who truly lost their innonence & childhood) w/this quilty plea? These children are the real victims of this whole scenario.

  • livex
    August 19, 2011 at 1:39 p.m.

    Redlab -- I'm genuinely curious, then, as to why you think the prosecutor would take a deal that lets these guys out of prison. His statement published in this newspaper reads very strongly as if his main interest is not to see justice done, but rather to avoid having to admit that there was a wrongful conviction, and to basically make the whole thing go away.

  • 2cute4u
    August 19, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.

    I know if I had been in jail that long and knew that I could be on the outside to prove my innocence. There would not be a second thought. Its the system. Funny how they did what they had to to cover themselves. Just saying I just hope these three men can make it in the outside world. They have been thru HELL

  • TheBatt
    August 19, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.

    So now what happens if at some point in the future, someone comes forward or is found that IS the murder in this case - and maybe even their DNA matches that sample of "unknown" origin? There won't be a case against them because three man have already confessed to the crime, been sentenced, and even confirmed the conviction.

    @2cute4u - they have no possibility of "proving their innocence" - they plead guilty. Done. Case closed.