Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, Stevie Branch (left to right)
Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols (left to right)
JONESBORO, Ark. (AP/KTHV) - Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas were in court today. They pleaded guilty and are free after nearly two decades in prison. They received 10 years probation.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin all have maintained their innocence. They agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely have enough evidence to convict them. However, none of the three said they thought this was true.
Echols told reporters that "It's not perfect, not perfect by any means." He says they can still follow and bring up evidence to prove their innocence and now from the outside. Echols says he's been in solitary so long, this is overwhelming.
Baldwin says he didn't want to take the deal but "they're trying to kill Damien." He says he had to think of Echols.
Echols was originally sentenced to death. Misskelley and Baldwin were ordered to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Echols and Baldwin changed their pleas from capital murder to three counts of first degree murder. Misskelley pled to one count of first degree and two counts of second degree murder.
Echols and Baldwin hugged after Echols thanked him for taking the plea mostly for him even though he wanted to continue fighting for his innocence.
Echols said they wouldn't be "able to get away" with what they did the first time. He said they talked about ghost stories and rumors the first time.
Baldwin wanted to leave during the press conference and was just going to excuse himself but then Echols and Misskelley followed. They all said they would talk to the press again but needed to leave right then.
Craighead County Prosecutor Scott Ellington says that this plea brings this case to a resolution and prevents them from suing the state in a civil case. He also says that he believes that this case is closed and nobody else besides the three men are responsible for the murders. However, he says that they would have been likely acquitted.
Ellington says, "Only time will tell whether this was the right decision on my part." He says that he feels it is the best decision and their time served is appropriate with the evidence.
Echols' mother Pam Hutchinson told THV's B.J. Steed that she is happy to have her son out but doesn't feel like this 18-year ordeal is over. She was crying, saying that it has been a "hellish" time for their family.
Echols said in a statement: "I cannot believe that this day has come. Despite my innocence, I doubted whether the system would ever actually set me free. I have spent half my life behind bars as Prisoner No. SK 931. Today, I can start to live the rest of it as Damien Wayne Echols. To my wife Lorri Davis, my attorneys, friends and supporters from Little Rock to Seattle to New Zealand, thanks to all of you who have stood by us and helped make this day a reality."
Baldwin said in a statement: "As an innocent man, this is not what I thought justice would look like. But I am incredibly grateful for our freedom, and for all those countless people who worked so tirelessly to help us obtain it."
The so called West Memphis 3 have been incarcerated since they were arrested in the 1993 deaths of three young Cub Scouts. The boys' naked bodies were found in a West Memphis ditch.
Two of the victims in the 1993 killings were drowned, the third corpse was mutilated, sparking rumors they had been sacrificed in a Satanic ritual. The families of the victims, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch, have had differing opinions about their guilt.
John Mark Byers, Byers' father, told THV's Ashley Blackstone that he has had a change of heart because he looked at the evidence and doesn't believe that they are guilty.
He says that there are no winners but he is happy they get to go home to their families. He only has a headstone to visit to "see" his son. He did add that "my son is not lost and I'll see him again." He says he still believes the evidence points to Stevie Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs.
Echols' sister, Michelle Echols, also told Ashley that she believes that Hobbs was involved. She said that his DNA was found and knows that "nothing will be done with it."
Actor Johnny Depp and singer Eddie Vedder have rallied for the men's release. So has singer Natalie Maines, who was at the courthouse with Vedder. Maines sings with the Dixie Chicks.
(Copyright 2011 by KTHV & The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)