Arkansas Dept. of Correction, via AP
L-R: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley. (2007 file photos.)
Eighteen years after the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., the three men convicted of the killings have been set free.
Though today they pleaded guilty to the murders, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are being released because of questions that new DNA evidence has raised and because prosecutors believe that the time that has expired since the crimes makes it too difficult to prevail in a new trial.
The three men, who still maintain they are innocent even after what they said in a court proceeding today, essentially pleaded guilty as part of a deal: They get their freedom in exchange for giving up the right to sue the state and acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to have found them guilty in the earlier trials.
It's now 1:15 p.m. ET. We've been following the story since early this morning when word first emerged that a deal might be in the works. Scroll down to see how the news developed and more about the case.
Update at 1:25 p.m. ET: The three men are now holding a news conference. Echols just told reporters that pleading guilty to a crime he says he did not commit, is "not perfect by any means, but at least it brings closure to some areas and some aspects." He had been on Arkansas' death row.
Baldwin said he accepted the deal in part because "they were trying to kill Damien."
Our original post:
Three men who were convicted as teenagers in 1993 for the brutal murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., may soon be released from prison.
According to The Commercial Appeal:
"The 'West Memphis Three' could be released as early as today under a pending deal between state prosecutors and defense attorneys, legal sources and relatives of victims said Thursday."
The newspaper adds that:
"If the deal is consummated in a closed-door hearing at 10 a.m. in Jonesboro, Ark., the three — death-row inmate Damien Echols, 36, and co-defendants Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley, 36, who are serving life terms — would be free after 18 years behind bars."
As the Commercial Appeal previously reported, DNA that was found at the murder scene has since been tested and "doesn't match [the] West Memphis Three." What's more, according to the newspaper:
"Police never found blood, saliva, skin cells, fingerprints, shoe prints, hairs or any type of DNA at the crime scene from Echols or his co-defendants. Prosecutors secured a conviction a year after the crime based on a confession by Misskelley. The defense claims Misskelley, who is borderline mentally retarded, broke down after four hours of questioning and lied to placate police."
There's a court hearing later this morning in Jonesboro, Ark. We'll update this post afterward.
Update at 12:55 p.m. ET: It was just announced in Jonesboro, Ark., that the "West Memphis Three" are now free men.
Essentially, authorities just told reporters, they pleaded guilty to the murders of three young boys in 1993. But they are free to maintain they are innocent of the crimes. And the state has acknowledged that it probably could not proceed with a retrial of them.
Update at 12:45 p.m. ET: We're still waiting to hear exactly what's been decided. There's another live feed from outside the Jonesboro courthouse (as well as live-blogging) from Memphis' WMCTV.com.
Update at 12:25 p.m. ET. As we wait to hear what's happened, there's this from The Associated Press:
"A person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order in the case told the AP the tentative deal includes a legal maneuver that would let the men maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely have enough evidence to convict them."
As the AP adds, "Echols was sentenced to die for the brutal killings and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life terms."
Update at 12:10 p.m. ET: Jonesboro's KAIT-TV is live-blogging and streaming its coverage. The court proceeding is supposed to open to the public any minute now.
Update at 11:15 a.m. ET: Our colleague Linda Holmes over at the Monkey See blog looks at the documentaries that have been done about the case and the high-profile support that Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley have gotten over the years from celebrities.
Update at 10:55 a.m. ET: Jonesboro's local KAIT-TV has a video report that traces some of the case's history.
Update at 10:40 a.m. ET: The Commercial Appeal points us to another valuable source of background on the case. It has collected a considerable amount of material here.