JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The saga commonly known as the "West Memphis 3" added another chapter Friday, as Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were released from prison.
The three men, now in their mid-30s, plead guilty to first-degree murder in connection to the deaths of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. Branch, Byers and Moore were eight-years old at the time of their deaths in 1993. Police arrested Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley for the crime.
Friday, all three men entered an Alford guilty plea, which means the three men maintain their innocence while admitting the state of Arkansas had enough evidence for a conviction. The plea deal, reached between the defense team and state, protects the state of Arkansas from civil lawsuit related to the conviction.
"Some are happy. Some are angry and some are perplexed. That's the case at the end of every trial," said Craighead County Prosecutor Scott Ellington.
After the hearing, Ellington told a team of reporters Friday he didn't believe the state could win a retrial, if granted, after 18-years. He noted some of the individuals in the original case have passed away, such as the employee who performed testing on original evidence.
"Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Junior entered a plea of guilty to the murders of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore," said Ellington. "I believe it would be practically impossible, after 18 years, to put on a proper case against the defendants in this case."
Judge David Laser handed down the sentence, providing the opportunity for all three men to walk free after filing the appropriate paperwork with the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Laser said the case was unprecedented. Friday's sentence was "time-served."
"The legal tangle that has become known as the West Memphis Three case is now finished," said Ellington. "Nothing in this proceeding or any other proceeding can bring back those little boys and compensate that."
Laser's sentence included 18-years, 78 days time-served on first-degree murder charges. Echols and Baldwin were sentenced on three counts of first-degree murder. Misskelley was sentenced on one first-degree murder charge and two second-degree murder charges.
"The defendants have spent nearly half of their lives in prison, and I pray that they have been rehabilitated," said Ellington. "Defendants proposed to plea guilty under North Carolina v. Alford. When they plead guilty with that, they could maintain their innocence, however, they acknowledge that the state had sufficient evidence that they could be found guilty."
Inside the courtroom, Misskelley had a slight smile on his face as the judge announced his sentence. Before more than 30 reporters from around Region 8, Arkansas and Tennessee, family members and others abruptly interrupted court proceedings as the sentence was handed down. Rock musician Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines were in attendance. Steve Branch, father of a victim, was escorted out of the courtroom after announcing his displeasure.
"Still very much in shock. Still overwhelmed. You kind of have to take into consideration that I've spent almost the past decade in absolute solitary confinement, so I'm not used to being around anyone," said Damien Echols. "We can still bring up new evidence. We can still continue the investigations we've been doing. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference now is that we can do it on the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it."
Outside the courtroom, hundreds of people, mostly supporters, cheered as each member walked to their vehicle. Some people chanted, "justice finally served."
"I'm just tired. This has been going on for 18 years and it's been an absolute living hell," said Echols. "They knew that they wouldn't be able to get away with a lot of stuff that they got away with the first time. They knew that there would be more people watching this, more attention on this case. They wouldn't be able to pull the same tricks. Basically, when we went to trial the first time, they came in with ghost stories, rumors, innuendo. Really things that had nothing to do with the case whatsoever."
"They would have to come with some sort of concrete physical evidence and they didn't have any and they knew that," said Echols.
During a news conference with reporters, Jesse Misskelley said he's not fearful of retaliation after the hearing. He said his family and friends will help him over the next few years.
"Even when you're in prison, it goes on every day. You have to worry about your own safety. It doesn't matter what the crime is, you still have to worry about your safety, regardless," said Misskelley.
Echols said he was especially thankful for Baldwin, who didn't initially want to accept the plea deal.
"He didn't want to take this deal in the beginning. I recognize and acknowledge that he did do it almost entirely for me," said Echols.
"They're not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take the deal from the get go; however, they're trying to kill Damien in this. Sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody," said Baldwin.
"This was not justice. 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. Then we had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us was to say, hey. We'll let you go, (but) only if you admit guilt," said Baldwin.