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'West Memphis 3' freed in child killings after 18 years

By the CNN Wire Staff
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West Memphis Three: Free and guilty too?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Arkansas' AG backs the prosecutor, says he still believes the men are guilty
  • The men, who say they are innocent, can now work to free their names, one says
  • The "West Memphis 3" go free after entering new pleas in a 1993 murder case
  • They were convicted of killing three West Memphis second-graders in 1993

Tune in to a CNN Presents special presentation: "Presumed Guilty: Murder in West Memphis" at 11 p.m. ET on CNN for more on the West Memphis Three and the evidence that set them free.

Jonesboro, Arkansas (CNN) -- Three men who served 18 years in prison following their convictions in a 1993 triple-slaying in West Memphis, Arkansas, walked free Friday to cheers from a supportive crowd after entering new pleas in the case.

"I want to be out. I deserve to be out," said Jason Baldwin, who along with Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., was freed after entering rarely used pleas in which they maintained their innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors have evidence to convict them.

Echols and Baldwin entered what is known as an Alford plea on three counts of first degree murder. Misskelley entered similar pleas to one count of first degree murder and two counts of second degree murder.

Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser sentenced the three to the 18 years already served and imposed a 10-year suspended sentence -- meaning they could be returned to jail if they violate the law.

"I don't think that it will make the pain go away to the victim families. I don't think it will make the pain go away to the defendant families," Laser said, adding it was nevertheless the best for all involved.

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Echols was previously sentenced to death and Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences in the May 1993 slayings of second-graders Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

The boys' bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces. Prosecutors argued that the men who were convicted, teenagers at the time, were driven by satanic ritual and that Echols had been the ringleader.

Critics of the case against the men argued that no direct evidence tied the three to the murders and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused the boys' wounds. More recent DNA testing also demonstrated no links, according to the men's supporters.

Echols said after his release that he was "very much in shock, very overwhelmed."

"I'm just tired," Echols said. "This has been going on for over 18 years, and it's been an absolute living hell."

Baldwin said he didn't initially want to accept the deal.

"This was not justice," he said, adding that he dropped his opposition to pave the way for Echols' release from death row.

"He had it so much worse than I had it," Baldwin said of Echols. "It's just insufferable to put a person through that."

While prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said the pleas entered Friday validate the decision of jurors who sent the men to prison, it also spares Arkansas the possibility of a retrial, which would have been difficult to prosecute after so many years, or a potential civil lawsuit by the men. The trio had been on course to win the right to new trials later this year.

"This is an appropriate resolution to this case at this time," Ellington, who works in Arkansas' second judicial district, told reporters. "Only time will tell as to whether this was a right decision on my part."

Although supporters of the men, dubbed the West Memphis 3, believe the true killer remains free, Ellington said he believes the pleas resolve the case.

"I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who pled guilty today," he said. But he said the state could file charges against others if new evidence emerges implicating someone else in the case.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said his staff had been helping Ellington's staff prepare for a state Supreme Court hearing on the case scheduled for December. But he said he learned this week that Ellington had accepted a plea deal proposed by the defense.

"I continue to believe that these defendants are guilty of the crimes for which they have now been twice convicted," McDaniel said in a release. "Prosecutors know their cases better than anyone. In this case, Mr. Ellington has exercised his discretion in such a way that has led to nine murder convictions that can never be appealed."

The case has drawn national attention, with actor Johnny Depp and singers Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines trying to rally support for the men's release. Vedder and Maines were at the courthouse on Friday.

John Mark Byers, whose stepson Christopher Byers was one of the three victims, said he believes the three men are innocent and releasing them without exonerating them of the crime is an outrage.

"They're innocent. They did not kill my son," Byers said before the hearing.

The father of another of the victims, Steven Branch, also blasted the decision, but for another reason.

"I don't know what kind of deal they worked up," Steve Branch told CNN affiliate WMC-TV before the hearing. "Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you, and you can walk free for killing somebody."

But Jessie Misskelley Sr. said he was happy that his son would be getting out of prison.

"I thought it might be some kind of publicity stunt. I can't believe it but it's real," he told WMC.

The three men were seeking a retrial in the case, and a hearing had been scheduled for a new trial. The state Supreme Court ruled in November that the three could present new evidence to the trial court after DNA testing between 2005 and 2007 failed to link them to the crime.

The material included hair from a ligature used to bind Moore and a hair recovered from a tree stump near where the bodies were found, Arkansas Supreme Court documents said.

The hair found in the ligature was consistent with Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while the hair found on the tree stump was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs, according to the documents.

Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect, and he maintains that he had nothing to do with the murders.

Echols and Baldwin said in a news conference after the men were released that they would continue to work to clear their names, something Baldwin said authorities aren't trying to do.

"They're not out there trying to find out who really murdered those boys," he said.

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