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Emotions run high among parents of slain Arkansas boys

By the CNN Wire Staff
West Memphis Three supporters wait outside the courthouse. The victims' families disagree on the court decision.
West Memphis Three supporters wait outside the courthouse. The victims' families disagree on the court decision.
  • 3 men in Arkansas are released, years after being convicted in the murders of 3 boys
  • They entered pleas, maintaining their innocence while admitting to evidence to convict them
  • One victim's stepfather says it's "crazy" the convictions still stand, calling the men innocent
  • Another victim's father calls the 3 convicts "animals" and says they shouldn't be free

Jonesboro, Arkansas (CNN) -- Crazy.

That is the word John Mark Byers, whose stepson Christopher was among three second-graders killed in West Memphis, Arkansas in May 1993, repeatedly used to describe Friday's release of three men convicted in the boys' murders from a Craighead County Courthouse in Jonesboro.

It is a sentiment shared by Steven Branch Sr., whose son Steven also was slain -- but for entirely different reasons.

A sense of disbelief and anger was ripe Friday among the victims' family members, trying to make sense of what happened 18 years ago and, especially, Friday. That is when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. entered what is known as an Alford plea on murder charges for which a jury had found them guilty. By doing so, the three maintained their innocence even as they acknowledged that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.

Byers told reporters that he previously felt that these three men murdered Christopher, Steven Branch and Michael Moore, mutilated the boys' bodies, then left them in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.

But since 2007, he's become convinced that all three are innocent -- as they have long claimed -- and has fought for their cause.

And he is flabbergasted the men, as part of the plea deal reached with Arkansas' 2nd Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington, have returned home even though their convictions on three counts of murder apiece still stand. In Byers' view, they should have been cleared without any caveats.

"Do the citizens of Arkansas realize how crazy this is is?" Byers said. "To think that I'm disturbed and upset and mad over it, yes, I am. I want justice."

So, too, does Steven Branch Sr.

West Memphis Three: Free and guilty too?

He does not believe the prosecution should have accepted the defense's proposal to employ the rarely used pleas, nor that the convicts should have been released as a result.

Outside the court Friday, Branch referred to Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as "animals" who should have remained behind bars -- and, in Echols' case, been executed as he'd been sentenced.

Branch told reporters that he believes allowing the three convicted felons to walk free via a mechanism like the Alford plea sets a dangerous precedent.

"It's just going to give a key to everybody that's on death row right now to open up their cells and walk out there with the rest us," he said. "All the killers, the rapists, the serial murderers."

The roller coaster of emotions has taken a toll on Branch's ex-wife, Pat Hobbs. She told CNN affiliate WREG that she'd once believed fervently Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley killed her son.

Now, Hobbs said, she doesn't know what to think. What she does want, though, is peace -- for herself and her late son.

"It's a terrible nightmare that I have to live with from day-to-day," Hobbs told WREG. "And I want to rest, and I want my son to rest."