Posted Aug 19, 2011 07:08 pm CDT
Three men convicted in a controversial Arkansas child-murder case were released from prison today after taking Alford pleas during a court hearing in Jonesboro.
Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were sentenced to 18 years in prison, with credit for time served, in the 1993 slayings of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and fellow second-grader Michael Moore, CNN reports. Baldwin and Misskelley had previously been sentenced to life, and Echols got the death penalty.
No direct evidence connects the three defendants, who are now in their mid-30s, to the West Memphis murders, and they maintain their innocence. Meanwhile, DNA tests on strands of hair found on or near the bodies matched a family member of one of the victims and a friend of that family member, the article says. However, the family member has never been considered a suspect and says he is innocent.
A state supreme court decision last year had granted the three an opportunity to present evidence at a hearing to seek new trials, based on the DNA test findings. It isn’t clear whether the Alford plea deal will put an end to the defendants’ efforts to prove their innocence in the Craighead County Circuit Court case.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington says he has no reason to think anyone else is guilty of the crime but will pursue other defendants if additional evidence comes to light, CNN reports. He said the unusual Alford plea deal, in which the defendants maintain their innocence but admit the government has enough evidence to prove them guilty, was best for all involved.
A written statement by Ellington is posted on the Arkansas Blog of the Arkansas Times.
Baldwin said he was reluctant to accept the deal, which he described as “not justice,” but did so to allow Echols, who he said “had it so much worse than I had it,” to get off death row, CNN reports.
The father of one victim expressed outrage that the three defendants have not been exonerated and the father of another victim expressed outrage that the three men are being freed.
A series of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky helped focus public attention on the case.
Hollywood Reporter: “West Memphis Three Set Free”
National Public Radio: “The ‘West Memphis Three’ Are Freed, Giving A Documentary A New Ending”
New York Times: “Deal Frees ‘West Memphis Three’ in Arkansas”