Updated: August 19, 2011, 3:39PM
A judge has ordered that the “West Memphis Three”, imprisoned for more than 18 years, be released following a plea agreement reached with prosecutors.In a hearing Friday morning, the three men convicted of murdering three West Memphis, Arkansas boys nearly two decades ago pleaded guilty in a rarely used and complicated Alford plea – in which they pleaded guilty but maintain their innocence, acknowledging that there might be enough evidence for a court to convict them.
In a press conference Friday, an attorney for the three men said that “there is no doubt on this side of the courtroom that these guys are innocent. None. None whatsoever. And as strongly as they may think that their convictions are valid, we think they’re invalid. History will judge that.”
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were convicted in 1993 of killing three eight-year old West Memphis Boy Scouts, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore. The bodies of the boys were found in a ditch in the woods, with their bodies mutilated and their hands and feet tied together.
Echols was put on death row, and Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences. All have long maintained their innocence.
The initial trials painted the killings as part of a Satanic ritual, with the prosecution calling an expert on cults as a witness. The convictions withstood a number of appeals, until new DNA evidenced was introduced in July 2007. None of the DNA of the three men convicted matched any found at the crime scene — though the DNA of one of the victims’ stepfather did. There was additional evidence from forensic pathologists introduced that stated that the mutilations of the bodies were postmortem injuries caused by animals.
Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted the three men a hearing, scheduled for December, to determine whether the three should be granted a new trial in light of the new evidence. The hearing was also going to review evidence of alleged juror misconduct in the original trial.
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