After entering guilty pleads in the 1993 deaths of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts, the three men known as the “West Memphis Three” were released from a Arkansas jail on Friday.
Two of the three men — Damien Echols, 36, and Jason Baldwin, 34 — entered their guilty pleas in a Jonesboro, Arkansas courtroom on Friday to three counts of first-degree murder. Jessie Misskelley, 36, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder as well as two counts of second-degree murder.
The three men were released due to a rare arrangement that allows defendants to maintain their innocence while at the same time entering guilty pleas, called the Alford plea. Echols was on death row for his role in the murders and was the alleged ringleader, while Misskelley and Baldwin each had life sentences. The three had served more than 18 years behind bars.
The men were allegedly behind the slayings of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore in West Memphis, Arkansas in May of 1993. A court filing described the three boys as being found “naked, bound and in horrific condition, submerged in a creek in the woods.”
In court, Echols said that he was imprisoned for a “crime that I did not commit.” Rather, he says that he and the other two men were convicted based on rumors and innuendo.
In 2007, DNA evidence linked Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Steven Branch, to the crimes. Hobbs denied seeing the three victims at the time, but the attorney of Echols say that at least three eyewitnesses said that Hobbs was last seen with the 8-year-old victims.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said that the case is closed that that despite the DNA evidence, Hobbs was not a suspect.
In addition, none of the DNA of the the three men were found at the scene of the crime. It was also found that Misskelley’s confession, who confessed to the crime first and implicated the two others, had several inconsistencies in it. The father of victim Steven Branch felt that the three men murdered his son.
At one point in the high-drama courtroom, Branch yelled out loud, “If you go through with this, you’re going to open Pandora’s Box. … You’re wrong, your honor. You can stop it right now before you do it.” Seconds later, law enforcement escorted him out of the room.
“They said a deal had been made or is about to be made for … the animals that killed my son [to] probably be released. I don’t know what kind of deal they made … now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you and you can walk free for killing somebody,” Branch said before the hearing.
He later told CBS affiliate WREG that he was against the release of the men.
“I’m thinking about what kind of sad day this is for the justice system that’s going to allow some convicted child murderers to be set free simply by admitting they killed the child,” said Steve Branch, father of Steven Branch, said. “If the justice system allows this, it’s going to open the door for every convicted murderer on death row to have a chance to say ‘yes, I killed him’ and be set free.”
However, another father, John Mark Byers, felt that the defendants were innocent. “It’s a total injustice,” Byers said. “These three men are being made to plead guilty to something they didn’t do.”