JONESBORO, AR – It is a strange plea deal. The West Memphis Three were forced to admit they are guilty of the 1993 murders of three little boys in order to get released from prison.
It was a bizarre scene played out in a Jonesboro, Arkansas courtroom on Friday, August 19, 2011.
It doesn’t seem to pass the common sense test: plead guilty and go free. But, for Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, that is exactly what happened.
“The legal tangle that has become known as the West Memphis Three is finished,” said Prosecutor Scott Ellington.
Ellington explained why he agreed to the plea that put Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley back on the streets.
“A 2010 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling brought to light the very real scenario that each of the defendants could likely receive a new trial,” said Ellington, “I further believe it would be practically impossible to put on a proper case against the defendants after 18 years.”
Thus, the legal maneuvering was on, with each man maintaining his innocence while agreeing to cop a guilty plea.
“It’s not perfect,” said Echols, “it is not perfect by any means, but at least it brings closure to some areas, you know.”
“The sent us to prison for the rest of our lives,” Baldwin told abc24.com, “then we had to come here and the state says we’ll let you go only if you admit guilt. That’s not justice no matter how you look at it.”
But, they are free. And that’s what Steve Branch, the father of one of the victim’s, feared the most.
In court on Friday morning, Branch began yelling from the back of the courtroom, only to be silenced by bailiffs and Judge David Laser.
Emotions were on edge from all sides, including Mark Byers, the father of another victim.
“They’re innocent,” proclaimed Byers, “they did not kill my son.”
Byers changed his mind about the West Memphis Three in 2007 and said he’s tired of the whole mess for multiple reasons.
“This is wrong, what the State of Arkansas is doing to cover its ass, and I’m sick of it,” Byers shouted, “because the real killer is walking around free.”
“They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys.” Baldwin said.
Baldwin, Echols and Misskelly, now 36-years-old, have spent half their lives in prison. Echols said they will keep working to clear their names from outside prison walls.
“I’m just tired,” Echols told abc24.com, “you know, this has been going on for 18 years and it has been an absolute living hell.”
Echols was the only one of the WM3 sentenced to death. Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.
Baldwin did not want to plead guilty. He eventually said he did so to get Echols off death row. As Baldwin put it, “they were trying to kill Damien.”
Now, any violation of their agreement, any trouble with the law, could send any one of the WM3 back to prison for 20 years.
The unique plea deal also guarantees they cannot sue the state for the time they spent in prison.