JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - In 1993, Judge David Burnett oversaw the trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, the so-called "West Memphis Three." He even postponed a run for state senate to preside over their numerous appeals. For years Burnett refused to comment on the case until now. In an exclusive interview with Region 8 News, State Senator Burnett reveals what he actually thinks about the defendants, the case and the outcome.
In 1993, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found murdered near their West Memphis homes. Three teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley were arrested for the crime. All three were found guilty of murder. Baldwin and Misskelley received life in prison. Echols was sentenced to death.
For 18-years the so-called "West Memphis Three" appealed their case. For 18-years, Judge David Burnett denied those appeals and he refused to speak about the case or the men outside of the courtroom. That is until now.
Last August, after weeks of negotiations with prosecutors, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released from prison without a retrial. Now a State Senator, Burnett says that was a mistake.
"I'm not real happy with the outcome. I would have preferred to see them have a new trial," said Burnett.
As for the prosecutors and judges who released them, Burnett says, "They did their job. And I did mine as I saw it."
While he doesn't criticize the decision, Burnett does defend his actions through the years. And, he says, he has the state's highest court on his side:
"Frankly, everything I did was affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court."
But that wasn't good enough for supporters of the West Memphis Three, who fought to see the men go free. Some traveled from as far away as Australia to attend their hearings. To those who say he should have granted a new trial, Burnett says..."Well, that was my opinion. They didn't need one. But, I wouldn't have objected if they'd gotten one. That was my decision at the time."
On August 19, 2011, the West Memphis Three appeared in a Jonesboro courtroom. Their supporters, including singers Natalie Mains and Eddie Vedder, were in the courtroom when the decision to release them was handed down. Outside on the streets, the three men were greeted with cheers.
Since then, the West Memphis Three have been treated like veritable rock stars. While Misskelley has kept a relatively low profile at his family's home in Crittenden County, Baldwin and Echols have been spotted alongside celebrities at the premiere of a new documentary examining their case. There's even talk of Johnny Depp producing yet another movie about the West Memphis Three. For Burnett, it's a bit much.
"The way it's ended, it's now a Hollywood comedy in my opinion and I don't like that," said Burnett.
In our exclusive interview, Senator Burnett said he has not had anything to do with the case in two years. He said, "I felt like I did what I was called upon to do at the time, 18 years ago."