UPDATE: CNN has posted video of the hearing this morning.
By Mara Leveritt
After the bang of a judge's gavel, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., walked out of a Jonesboro courtroom as free men, shortly before noon. They remain convicted felons, but they are not even on parole.
Circuit Judge David Laser accepted a plea agreement worked out between the state attorney general's office, the local prosecutor and attorneys representing the men, who have spent nearly 18 years in prison. Under the agreement, called an Alford plea, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley told the court they would plead guilty to reduced charges of first-degree, rather than capital murder, while continuing to maintain that they are innocent. An Alford plea allows defendants to assert their innocence, while conceding that the state has enough evidence to convict them.
Echols, 36, and Baldwin, 34, pleaded to three first-degree murder counts and Misskelley to one first-degree and two second-degree murder counts. They then filled out paperwork for their release. The judge had the men testify about their education and whether they were under the influence of drugs. The judge made them understand they did not have to plead guilty but to continue to seek a new trial. They asserted their innocence but said they were entering the plea on advice of counsel as being in their best interest.
They were sentenced to time served — more than 216 months — with 120 months suspended. If they commit law violations, they'll have to serve that time. The biological father of a victim, Steven Branch, rose to object to the sentence. He said the plea deal would open a Pandora's box as he had in angry TV interviews yesterday. He was led from the courtroom by officers.
The judge commended the outside effort that had been made to win the defendants' release. He said it was the first Alford plea he'd handled, but thought it was in the best interest of all involved. Judge Laser said: "I believe this ruling will give rise to discussions for a long time to come. I don't think it will make the pain go away for the familides of the victims. I don't think it will make the pain go away for the families of defendants. It won't take away a minute of the time these men have served in prison. This is a tragedy on all sides." The judge said he held a private session with parties before the public hearing to make sure all understood the unusual agreement and all questions were answered.
Afterward, defense attorney Dennis Riordon, described the arcane procedure as "oxymoronic" and that nothing like it had ever happened in American jurisprudence. He explained that the legal standard to entertain a plea required the judge to first decide that there was sufficient evidence to show the defendants would be acquitted if granted a new trial. But then he also had to decide, in accepting an Alford guilty plea, that there was sufficient evidence for conviction.
A news conference by parties in the case followed. Prosecutor Scott Ellington defended the decision, though he held firmly to the state's belief that the defendants were the only ones responsible for the three deaths. He made clear further investigation of others was NOT planned. He released a statement we've printed in full on another post He said he believed there was a strong chance a new trial would have been ordered because of jury misconduct, a fact along with new DNA evidence that complicated the case for the state. At this point, it would have been "practically impossible to put on a proper case against defendants," he said.
At the news conference, the defendants said the outcome was "imperfect" (Echols) and Baldwin said he opposed it initially because it "wasn't justice." Misskelley, asked about fear of threats on his life by those who might disagree with the outcome, said he was accustomed to threats from 18 years in prison. Baldwin said he ultimately joined the decision to save Echols' life, his attorney said. The men's attorney, Dennis Riordan, said the state's acceptance of the plea deal was a "recognition of their innocence," despite Ellington's assertion to the contrary.
The state's ability to convict the men was established in 1994, when two juries found the men, who were teenagers at the time, guilty of murdering three eight-year-old boys — Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore — the year before. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley to life without parole. They have since become known as the West Memphis Three.
The plea agreement means that attorneys for the state will not have to test whether they could win a conviction again, if new trials were ordered. Until today, a hearing to determine whether the men deserved new trials was scheduled for Laser's court in December.
With this agreement, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley leave court as convicted murderers who have served an amount of time in prison that state officials accept as sufficient. However, all three preserve the right to attempt to clear their names in the future by bringing new evidence to court.
Like much of this case, today's agreement surpasses extraordinary. This may be the first time in this country that inmates sentenced to life — much less one sentenced to death — have been removed from their prisons in shackles and handcuffs and freed within 24 hours based on a plea agreement.
Usually, plea agreements are reached before — and in lieu of — a trial. It is extremely rare, if not unheard of, for state prosecutors to even consider revisiting murder convictions, much less after almost two decades. While hundreds of inmates have now been exonerated based on new DNA evidence, the agreement reached in this case is not an exoneration.
In general, the purpose of plea agreements, including Alford pleas, is to avoid the uncertainty and expense of a trial by agreeing to a lesser charge and accepting a commensurate sentence. In this case, the state had long ago won the convictions and the sentences were being served. Why prosecutors, including Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Scott Ellington of northeast Arkansas's Second Judicial District, chose to release the men at this point was not immediately clear.
However, several remarkable circumstances converged in this case to make a plea deal possible. A few were that: Judge David Burnett, who officiated at the 1994 trials, allowed HBO to film them; the resulting documentary and two books about the case created widespread public interest, along with some belief that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were convicted on what many considered scant evidence; financialhelp for the three men followed, gaining them high-powered legal representation; and that resulted in an Arkansas Supreme Court order last November for a hearing to review their cases. Study of DNA evidence, not possible in 1994, has yet to turn up DNA in the evidence that matches the defendants.
Laser's announcement yesterday that he would hold a hearing today took most in the state by surprise. He had set aside three weeks this December to hear all evidence from all sides in the case, after which he was expected to rule on whether the men would be granted new trials. If he ruled that they should be retried, some court observers considered it possible that a plea might be discussed at that time. To have it, in effect, preempt a hearing ordered by the Supreme Court is but one more startling aspect of today's developments.
Misskelley was the first of the three to be tried in 1994. He was 17 at the time. He was tried separately from the other two because he had confessed—and implicated Echols and Baldwin — in a statement tape-recorded by police. Misskelley retracted the statement but was convicted after prosecutors played it at his trial. Though prosecutors had asked for the death penalty, jurors sentenced Misskelley to life in prison.
Echols and Baldwin were tried immediately after Misskelley. Prosecutors wanted Misskelley to testify at their trial, but he refused, despite offers of a reduced sentence if he would say again that he'd seen them kill the children. Echols and Baldwin have always said they are innocent.
The case gained national attention soon after the teenagers' arrests, when word was leaked that the murders were committed as part of a satanic ritual. A key prosecution witness in the second trial was a self-proclaimed cult expert, who stated that the murders bore "trappings" of the occult. This testimony, combined with testimony about books Echols read and some of his writings, plus evidence that he and Baldwin liked heavy-metal music, and that a number of black t-shirts were found in Baldwin's closet, helped to convict the two.
Prosecutors asked jurors to sentence both to death. Jurors complied with regard to Echols, who was the oldest of the three, at 18, and the accused ringleader. Baldwin, 16, was sentenced to life in prison. Shortly before the trial, prosecutors had offered not to seek the death penalty against Baldwin, if he would say he'd seen Echols kill the boys. Baldwin refused.
In 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously affirmed all three convictions. Years of appeals followed, and evidence from the crime was subjected to scientific testing not available in the early '90s. No physical evidence — at the trials or discovered since — has been linked to any of the three convicted. Recent tests, however, did establish that a hair found inside a knot used to bind one of the boys may have come from the stepfather of another of the victims. Additionally, a hair found in the bark of a tree near where the bodies were found was identified as probably belonging to a friend of that stepfather.
Attorney General McDaniel publicly dismissed the importance of those findings, saying that they did not prove that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were innocent. He has repeatedly pointed out that all three defendants confessed to the killings: Misskelley in his statement to police, Echols in a statement overheard by girls at a softball field, and Baldwin to a prisoner who was jailed with him before trial. Though hearsay, the testimony of the "softball girls" and the "jailhouse snitch" was allowed at the men's trials because the law permits statements relating to the admission of a crime.
McDaniel's office strenuously resisted defense attempts to gain new trials and to allow the new DNA evidence into court. But it was primarily because of the new DNA evidence that, nine months ago, the state Supreme Court ordered the evidentiary hearing that was to have been held in December.
Now, all of that is moot. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley suddenly are free, never to be tried again for the murders for which they have now spent more than half their lives in prison. As convicts, they are unable to seek restitution for their time in prison or to profit from works about the case.
Political fallout is expected. McDaniel is expected to run for governor in 2014. Ellington has been considering a race for Congress. Though the West Memphis Three enjoyed a broad support group, many people remain convinced of their guilt. And some supporters resent that the Three were forced to admit to a crime they say they did not commit.
The decision is a repudiation, too, of two jury verdicts and the work of a prosecutor and law officers in the home territory of McDaniel, who's from Jonesboro.
Circuit Judge John Fogleman, who prosecuted the case, was defeated in a race for Supreme Court last year in a race in which the case was raised. He defended his work, pointing to jury verdicts and affirmations by appeals courts. He told the Arkansas Times, in response to the day's developments, "I respect the system of justice and as a sitting judge I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on a case that I’ve not been involved in for 17 years."