Video: ‘West Memphis 3’ released from prison

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    >> an extraordinary turn of events in a murder case that has captured worldwide attention. it began nearly 20 years ago with the shocking deaths of three boys, and now the men who were convicted in those killing killings, and who have always maintained their innocence are free. they were released from prison yesterday. nbc's pete williams reports on the west memphis three.

    >> reporter: a crowd gathered early outside the courthouse to witness the end of an emotional saga that began in 1993 with a brutal crime in west memphis , arkansas. three second graders, cub scouts , tied up and beaten to death, left in a ditch behind a truck stop. a month later, police accused three teenagers of killing the boys in a satanic ritual . despite a lack of physical evidence, all were convicted. jason baldwin and jessie misskelley sentenced to life in prison , the death penalty for damien echols . but friday it was over. their dna was never found at the crime scene . appeals for a second trial was marred by police and juror misconduct and an hbo documentary attracted nationwide attention to problems with the case.

    >> the murders had been part of a satanic ritual .

    >> satanic worship.

    >> reporter: in court friday a judge ordered a new trial. then in a move worked out in advance, the three maintained their innocence but pleaded guilty , rather than face a new trial. sentenced to time served , they were free to go. the men said they wanted to prove their innocence, but agreed to the deal to get damien echols off death row .

    >> fighting for the trial as much as possible, but, he had it so much worse than i had it.

    >> i recognize and acknowledge that he did do it almost entirely for me.

    >> reporter: the father of one of the victims, christopher buyers, says he became convinced the men were not guilty.

    >> i want justice. and i wanted the three of them to be free. and i have no animosity whatsoever towards the three. i know they're innocent.

    >> reporter: but the father of another victim, steve branch, says he believes they did it.

    >> if these animals are released you're just going to give the keys to everybody on death row right now.

    >> reporter: the deal saves face for both sides. prosecutors insist the three were the killers, but their lawyers say the state would never let them out if it was convinced of their guilt. the men themselves say they'll keep fighting to prove their innocence, leaving some to wonder, who killed those boys. for "today," pete williams , nbc news, washington.

    >> joe burlinger and bruce anoski are directors of paradise lost , a documentary that sparked widespread support for the possibility of the memphis three's innocence. they also produced a follow-up documentary and a third installment that will air this january on hbo. joe and bruce, good morning to you.

    >> thanks for having us.

    >> good morning.

    >> how are you?

    >> i'm doing great. i know you were there when the three men, damien echols , jason baldwin and jessie misskelley learned they were able to walk free after 18 years behind bars . you call it salvation, not justice. and i know these three weren't prepared to accept this deal because they had to plead to a lesser crime. how did they come to move forward with this? what was the reasoning behind it?

    >> well, there was a quick deal about two weeks ago started happening, a deal was offered to the prosecutor that they, for 18 years, delays and dragging this thing out, decided to take. i think it's politics. you know, dusty mcdaniels, the arkansas attorney general , is running for governor at the end of the year, and i don't think they wanted a messy, embarrassing evidentiary hearing in december, which was scheduled to happen.

    >> i know a lot of big names joined the chorus for their release. was this, in large part, due to your documentary?

    >> the first film that we made impacted a lot of people. you know, celebrities and johnny depp and eddie vedders and people like that. but i think it was the everyday person who discovered this case, and really, you know, brought it forward. they've been with it for 18 years. so, the celebrities were great but the everyday person was really the person that carried this through.

    >> and i know you all really got to know the families over the years. the families of these three men. the families of the victims of this crime. how -- what has been their responses to what's happened, to the events that unfolded this week?

    >> well, obviously the families of the accused men or the convicted men are thrilled that this legal nightmare has come to an end, but they, like us are dumbfounded that the state of arkansas didn't have the courage to fellly exonerate these people and now these guys have this sort of damocles hanging over their head of having to accept a murder conviction when, in fact, we all believe that they're completely innocent. and the families of the victims, two of the three families of the victims believe that the west memphis three were innocent and therefore, what the state of arkansas is basically telling them is that, we're not going to go find the real killer. i think there's joy and there's confusion, and, you know, it's bittersweet.

    >> we really believe that if -- go ahead.

    >> i just wanted to have you talk a little bit about the three men, these 18 years behind prison, you spent some time with them. how have they changed? they were just teenagers when they were put behind bars .

    >> yeah, they were teenagers, and now they're in their mid 30s. and you know, i got chills yesterday at the hotel when i saw damien go in to the elevator. just to see him do something other than being chained, and behind a piece of plastic when we would see him. i think damien and jason are going to do really, really well. i'm a little bit worried about jessie just because he doesn't have the same support system as those guys have. but we'll do anything we can to help these guys. we loved them over the years.

    >> and i think the remarkable thing about these guys is they were impoverished, trailer park people, and we don't mean that discourteously, we just mean that they had very little opportunity and education when they were arrested. i think that's one reason the state almost got away with this. they were basically indigent, you know, uneducated people. and to see how all of them have transformed themselves into prison, and to have endured this nightmare while still maintaining their innocence was really quite remarkable.

    >> we know --

    >> we spent some time with them last night to just be able to hug these guys, and to really, you know, tell a joke and talk and, you know, damien asked me how my family was. and you know, it was all very, very cordial.

    >> right.

    >> no way to say it. i mean, damien 's been nice enough to say that the film probably saved his life. and that's quite an honor for us.

    >> it's powerful, and i know you all are working on a third installment of your documentary series . we look forward to it. thank you both.

    >> thank you.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/19/2011 6:42:42 PM ET 2011-08-19T22:42:42

Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts were freed Friday after nearly two decades in prison and after a judge OK'd a deal with prosecutors.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley agreed to change their pleas from not guilty to guilty in the 1993 killings in West Memphis, Ark.

They did so using a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict them.

After the closed hearings before a judge, Baldwin told reporters that he had been reluctant to plead guilty to crimes he maintains he didn't commit, but that he went along so as to help Echols, who was on death row.

"That's not justice, however you look at it," he said of the deal.

Echols called the 18 years of prison and appeals "an absolute living hell."

"It's not perfect," he said of the deal. "It's not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence."

Echols said the men would continue to work to clear their names.

The three were placed on 10 years' probation and if they re-offend they could be sent back to prison for 21 years, Prosecutor Scott Ellington said.

"I believe this case is closed," Ellington added.

Echols had been sentenced to die for the brutal killings and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life terms. Misskelley initially confessed, but defense attorneys claim police took advantage of his low IQ.

Chaos outside courtroom
Earlier Friday, uniformed sheriff's deputies tried to sort through the chaos as hundreds of people — spectators, reporters, supporters — filled the hallway outside the courtroom.

Some in the crowd applauded as Lorri Davis, Damien Echols' wife, entered the courthouse. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder also traveled to Jonesboro for the hearing.

The defendants, whose case and cause were taken up by celebrities following a pair of documentaries, are known collectively as the "West Memphis 3."

Video: After being freed, ‘West Memphis 3’ speak out (on this page)

They were convicted in 1994 of killing Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore and leaving their naked bodies in a West Memphis ditch.

The Arkansas Supreme Court last year ordered new hearings after defense attorneys said new DNA evidence could exonerate them. A courtroom date had been set for December, but Judge David Laser scheduled the Friday hearing without releasing details.

Recent DNA tests did not link the men to the crime scene and showed the presence of others who have not been identified.

The murders rocked the community of West Memphis. Police called the murders "satanic" in nature because the children's naked bodies had been bound and mutilated.

Since the original convictions, two of the victims' families have joined forces with the defense, declaring that the men are innocent.

Byers' adoptive father, John Mark Byers, said he believes prosecutors went after the wrong men.

"There's certainly no justice for the three men that's been in prison or my son and his two friends," Byers said. "To me, this is just a cop-out from the state for not wanting to admit that they made a mistake."

But Branch's father had to be removed from the courtroom after interrupting proceedings to object to the deal, witnesses said.

Story: HBO retooling film for West Memphis 3 verdict

A 1996 HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," drew the attention of celebrities including Vedder, actor Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. They and other celebrities helped fund a legal team.

Immediately after the killings, police had few leads until receiving a tip that Echols had been seen mud-covered the night the boys disappeared. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated Baldwin and Echols.

"Then they tied them up, tied their hands up," Misskelley said in a statement to police, parts of which were tape recorded. After describing sodomizing and other violence, he went on: "And I saw it and turned around and looked, and then I took off running. I went home, then they called me and asked me, 'How come I didn't stay? I told them, I just couldn't.'"

Misskelley later recanted, and defense lawyers said the then-17-year-old got several parts of the story wrong. An autopsy said there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. And Miskelley had said the older boys abducted the boys in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.

In upholding Echols' conviction in 1996, the state Supreme Court noted that two people testified Echols bragged about the killings, an eyewitness put Echols at the scene, fibers similar to the boys' clothing were found in Echols' home, a knife was found in a pond behind Baldwin's home, Echols' interest in the occult and his telling police that he understood the boys had been mutilated before officers had released such details.

Story: Court orders new hearing for 'West Memphis 3'

Alford plea
Friday's move was a complicated legal proceeding that protects Arkansas from a potential lawsuit should the men win a new trial, get acquitted, and seek to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, Prosecutor Ellington said.

The men agreed to what's known as an Alford plea. Normally, when defendants plead guilty in criminal cases, they admit that they've done the crime in question.

Video: Legal maneuver explained

But in an Alford plea, defendants are allowed to insist they're innocent, says Kay Levine, a former prosecutor who now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. She is not involved with the Arkansas case.

"It's not an insane strategy decision," Levine said. But, she added: "It's incredibly troubling to us as a free society that people would plead guilty to something that they actually did not do."

Some judges find the legal maneuver offensive, Levine says, because they see no reason someone would not contest to a crime that they didn't commit. But most prosecutors would take the agreement, she said.

"The prosecutors still get the deal that they have already struck," she said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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