Update at 12:55 p.m. ET: It was just announced in Jonesboro, Ark., that the “West Memphis Three” are now free men.
Essentially, authorities just told reporters, they pleaded ‘no contest’ to the murders of three young boys in 1993. But they are free to maintain they are innocent of the crimes. And the state has acknowledged that it probably could not proceed with a retrial of them.
WM3 leave prison with all belongings; source says they are not expected back
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. have been taken from their cells in the Arkansas Department of Correction and are being transported to Jonesboro, for tomorrow’s hearing. An official of the ADC reported that they left with all their belongings, which is unusual and suggests that they are not expected back. This is the first time all three have left prison together.
I am in Jonesboro now and rumors are flying. It appears that an agreement has been reached between prosecutors and defense attorneys. However, I believe some media reports that have already been released are inaccurate.
Negotiations have been complex. An agreement, if one is approved in court tomorrow, will likely be complex too. Please remember how wild speculation distorted the start of this case. If a possible end is in sight, I hope that the next several sensitive hours will not also be marred—nor jeopardized—by a frenzy of speculation and rumors.
As being reported by Huffington Post:
After serving 17 years behind bars for the brutal murder of three children in eastern Arkansas, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin — dubbed the “West Memphis Three” — have been released from prison.
“They are currently being processed out,” prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington told reporters during a Friday press conference. “They will be free men … on suspended sentence.”
All three men had been imprisoned since 1994, when they were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.
Prosecutors alleged the trio killed the children in Robin Hood Hills on the morning of May 6, 1993, as part of a satanic ritual. According to police, the boys’ bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch. Each had been hogtied with his own shoelaces.
At the time of their arrests, Baldwin was 16. Misskelley was 17, and Echols was 18.
Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 40 years, and Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.
DNA testing was not available at the time of the defendants’ trials. In 2007, it was found that DNA collected at the crime scene did not match that belonging to any of the three men. In November 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled that all three could present new evidence in court.
A new court date had been set for December, but on Thursday Judge David Laser ordered all three men transported to Jonesboro for today’s surprise hearing. In a brief statement released to the press, Laser would only say that the hearing was to “take up certain matters pertaining to the cases” of the three defendants.
Because of a gag order, no one from the prosecution, defense or the state’s Attorney General’s Office would comment on the purpose of today’s hearing.
Experts believe both sides have entered into a complex legal agreement, in which the three men have entered into Alford pleas.
“The plea means that you maintain your innocence but you believe there is a substantial likelihood that a jury will find you guilty so you are pleading guilty per State v. Alford,” Anne Bremner, a Seattle attorney and legal analyst, told The Huffington Post. “The effect of the corresponding finding of guilt by the court is the same as with a straight guilty plea.”
Bremner added: “It seems that they want a plea so they can argue the accused are collaterally estopped from challenging their arrest and prosecution in any subsequent civil lawsuit. Probable cause will be established as a matter of law upon the court ‘s acceptance of their Alford pleas.”
Byers’ father, John Mark Byers, shared his opinion on the pleas with reporters outside the courtroom this morning. Byers said he believes Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are innocent and that he is angry with the way the pleas are being handled.
“This is not right, and the people of Arkansas need to stand up and raise hell. … Just because they admit to this today it’s not over,” Byers said.
Since their incarceration, the trio has been the subject of three documentaries, Paradise Lost, the latest of which is scheduled to be released in November. The men have also had a long list of celebrity supporters, including the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Metallica.
Women hold a sign at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, proclaiming innocence of three Arkansas men convicted in the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis, Ark., children. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)