On this day in 2011, three men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the murders of three boys in Arkansas, are released from prison in a special legal deal allowing them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict them. Echols, 36, had been on death row, while Baldwin, 34, and Misskelley, 36, were serving life sentences. Collectively known as the “West Memphis Three,” the men had always maintained their innocence, and questions about the evidence used to convict them had persisted for years. Their case attracted widespread attention and the support of a number of celebrities.
In May 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore, were found naked and hog-tied in a drainage ditch in a wooded section of West Memphis, Arkansas. Investigators initially had few solid leads; however, because the bodies appeared to have been mutilated, rumors circulated about a possible connection to satanic cult activities. A tip eventually led investigators to focus on the teenage Echols, a high school dropout who grew up poor, was interested in witchcraft and regularly wore black clothing. Then, Misskelley, an acquaintance of Echols, confessed to the murders following a lengthy interrogation by authorities, and implicated Echols and Baldwin. Described as having a below-average IQ, Misskelley provided information about the crime that conflicted in key ways from details known to the police, and he soon recanted his confession. Nevertheless, in February 1994, he was convicted of first- and second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.
In a separate trial in March 1994, Echols and Baldwin were convicted of capital murder. During the trial, Misskelley refused to testify against the two, and prosecutors had no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking Echols and Baldwin to the crime. Instead, the prosecution presented evidence that Echols, the alleged ringleader, read books about witchcraft as well as novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and said he was motivated to murder the boys as part of an occult ritual.
The case gained national attention with the release of the 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which cast doubt on the men’s guilt. A movement grew to free the West Memphis Three, and celebrities including Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and film director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) spoke out in support of the three men and helped fund a legal team to fight the convictions. In 2007, lawyers for the West Memphis Three said new forensic tests showed there was no DNA evidence to link the men to the crime.
In the fall of 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a hearing for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to determine if they deserved new trials. However, before the hearing took place, the trio’s lawyers and prosecutors in Arkansas reached a deal allowing the men to enter an Alford plea and go free. With this little-used legal tool, a defendant is allowed to maintain his or her innocence but plead guilty because it is considered in his or her best interest to do so.
In a statement following his release from custody on August 19, 2011, Echols said, in part, of the plea deal: “I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars.”