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Convicted child killers freed after plea change

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.
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/ Source: staff and news service reports

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.