The Lookout

‘West Memphis Three’ freed after 18 years

Zachary Roth
The Lookout

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Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., center, and Jason Baldwin at a news conference in Jonesboro, Ark., …

Three Arkansas men, who served 18 years in prison for the brutal murder of three boys, are going home.

"I'm just tired," Jesse Misskelley Jr. told reporters. "This has been going on for 18 years. It's been an absolute living hell."

The release of the "West Memphis Three" came after a complex and confusing plea deal, in which the men--Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Misskelley--pleaded guilty and were sentenced to the 18 years they've already served. They're allowed to maintain their innocence, while officially acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.

The deal suggests prosecutors doubted their ability to win a retrial. "No jury would convict them at a new trial," one of the men's defense lawyers said.

"It is not perfect by any means," said Echols, who was on death row. "We can still try to clear our names, the only difference is now we can do it from the outside."

The stepfather of one of the victims says he believes the men are innocent, and shouldn't have to plead guilty to go free.

In 1993, three 8-year-old boys from West Memphis, Ark.--Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and James Michael Moore--were found naked, beaten, and hogtied in a drainage ditch. The victims had been sexually abused, and one had been partially castrated.

Prosecutors argued the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Echols, 19 at the time, was cast as the ringleader, and given the death penalty. Baldwin and Misskelley, then 16 and 17 respectively, were given life in prison plus 40 years. A confession to police by Misskelley, who is mentally challenged, was retracted within days and not admitted at trial.

The men had almost no money to pay for a legal defense at the time, one of their lawyers said today.

But the men have always maintained their innocence. And a defense motion at today's hearing concerned DNA testing results that allegedly excluded all three men from the crime.

Defense lawyers have named another potential new suspect, Randy Hobbs, a stepfather of one of the victims. Hobbs's DNA matched a hair found on the shoelaces used to tie the boys together. He has denied involvement and has not been named as a suspect.

The West Memphis Three have become something of a cause celebre. In August, a rally in Little Rock, featuring Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, raised money for the defense effort. An HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost," also focuses on the case. It began as an effort to understand how three teenagers could have committed such grisly and senseless murders. When doubts about the men's involvement surfaced, its focus shifted.

Echols's lawyer, Donald Horgan, said the story of the West Memphis Three is all too common. "For every group of defendants like these that ultimately get some attention paid to them, there are 100 who are innocent, who have no legal or financial support," he said.

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