'West Memphis Three' Will Be Freed After 18 Years; DNA Evidence Feeds Doubts - ABC News

'West Memphis Three' Will Be Freed After 18 Years; DNA Evidence Feeds Doubts - ABC News

By ANNE-MARIE DORNING
Aug. 19, 2011

The 18-year ordeal of the so-called West Memphis Three ended today in an Arkansas courtroom after a judge accepted a plea deal to set them free.

The three men will be allowed to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them, according to the Associated Press.

It is a legal maneuver that would allow the men to leave prison for the first time in more than a dozen years. They have always maintained their innocence.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were convicted in the 1993 deaths of three 8-year-old boys from West Memphis, Ark.

The victims -- Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and James Michael Moore -- were found naked, beaten and hogtied in a drainage ditch. They had been sexually abused and one of the boys had been partially castrated. Echols, who was 19 at the time, was considered the mastermind and given the death penalty.

Baldwin, 16 at the time, and Misskelley, 17, were sentenced to life in prison, plus 40 years. The prosecution had claimed the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Police officers also extracted a confession from Misskelley, which was not admitted at trial. Misskelley, who is mentally challenged, retracted the confession within days.

The stepfather of one of the murdered boys was outside the Jonesboro courthouse today angrily protesting the possible deal, but not for the reason one might expect. He's convinced of the innocence of the West Memphis Three and is passionately arguing that they should not have to make a deal with the state in order to go free.

He is also repeatedly naming the man he believes to be the real killer of the three boys.

Another father, Steve Branch, is angry, too. But he still believes the West Memphis Three are guilty and wonders why, if they pled no contest to the murders, they are being released.

The defense has named Randy Hobbs, who is a stepfather of one of the victims, as a potential new suspect. His DNA was matched to a hair found on the shoelaces used to tie the boys before they were dumped in a ditch. Hobbs, who was questioned early on, denies any involvement and has not been named as a suspect.

The judge had two motions in front of him. One motion alleging juror misconduct in the original case and the other dealing with DNA testing results that allegedly excluded all three men from the crime.

Echols, now 36, Baldwin, 34, and Misskelley, 36, have always maintained their innocence and the case has received considerable publicity, and recently some high-profile financial support.

There was an August rally in Little Rock to raise funds that featured Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, actor Johnny Depp and singer Eddie Vedder.

Two books and two HBO documentaries have been released about the case. YouTube videos, a support group called \"Arkansas Take Action" and a website, WM3.org, round out the media blitz.

The third installment of HBO's documentary series about the case, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" is set to debut at the Toronto and New York film festivals in September. The producers had to rush to get to Arkansas for this hearing, and they are there to film and preparing to change the ending. They had originally been dispatched in 1994 by HBO to the first trial to do a film about how young kids could have gone so wrong to the point of murdering three little boys. Only after observing the trial did they change the theme of the original film.

Echols' attorney, Horgan, said that while it might appear as though celebrity support for the "West Memphis Three" sets the case apart, their story is all too common.

"For every group of defendants like these that ultimately get some attention paid to them, there are 100 who are innocent, who have no legal or financial support," Horgan said.

When the teens were convicted in 1993, he said, they had almost no money to pay for legal help and, as a result, were convicted of a crime they did not commit.

But as the men stood in court today surrounded by a tearful and joyous crowd of family and friends, there was only talk about the future, not the past.

ABC News' Jim Avila and James Hill contributed to this report.

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