THREE men convicted in the nightmarish slayings of three Cub Scouts in the US have gone free, nearly two decades after they were sent to prison in a case so gruesome it raised suspicions the children had been sacrificed in a Satanic ritual.
Doubts about the evidence against the trio had persisted for years and threatened to force prosecutors to put on a second trial in 2012.
Instead, the so-called West Memphis Three were permitted to plead guilty to murder in exchange for time served, ending a long-running legal battle that had raised questions about DNA and key witnesses – and attracted support from celebrities such as Eddie Vedder.
The men entered the pleas under a legal provision that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
“Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest,” Jessie Misskelley said.
Damien Echols had been on Arkansas death row and in 1994 came within three weeks of execution. He remained defiant, accusing prosecutors of using innuendo and faulty evidence to convict them.
The third man freed, Jason Baldwin, told reporters he planned to “live my life the best I can and enjoy every moment of it.”
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said it would be “practically impossible” to put on a proper trial after 18 years.
The mother of a witness who testified about Echols’s confession has publicly questioned her daughter’s truthfulness. And a crime lab employee who collected fibre evidence at two of the defendants’ homes has died.
“I believe this case is closed, and there are no other individuals involved,” Ellington said.
Since the original convictions, two of the victims’ families have joined forces with the defence, declaring that the men are innocent, he added.
The victims’ families were notified about the pact ahead of time but were not asked to approve it.
Echols said he and the others would keep working to fully clear their names. The men, who were teenagers when they were convicted, have spent half their lives in prison.
“It’s not perfect by any means,” Echols said of the arrangement. “But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects.”
Shortly after the men entered their new pleas, the father of one of the victims spoke out in court.
“Your honour, if you go through with this, you’re going to open Pandora’s box,” Steve Branch protested before deputies led him away. “You’re wrong, your honour. You can stop this right now before you do it.”
All three men were placed on 10 years’ unsupervised probation. If they get in trouble again, they could be sent back to prison for 21 years, Ellington said.
Circuit Judge David Laser acknowledged the case was complex and that families on both sides had suffered. He said the deal would serve justice “the best we can.”
“I don’t think it will make the pain go away,” Laser said.
One person yelled “Baby killers” as the three left the courtroom.
The killings were particularly ghastly. The boys – Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore – were found naked and hogtied, and rumors of Satanism roiled the community in the weeks following their deaths.
Branch and Moore drowned in about 60cm of water; Byers bled to death, and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.
Police had few leads until receiving a tip that Echols had been seen covered in mud on the night of the boys’ disappearance. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated Baldwin and Echols. Misskelley, then 17, later recanted, and defence lawyers said he got several parts of the story incorrect.
A 1996 HBO documentary titled “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” drew the attention of celebrities including Vedder and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks.
Joined by other celebrities, they helped fund a legal team that sought a new trial.
“Why are they innocent?” Vedder said in an interview with The Associated Press last year. “Because there’s nothing that says they’re guilty.”
On Friday, Echols’s wife, Lorri, sat in the front row of a crowded courtroom, next to the Pearl Jam frontman. Vedder put his arm around her during the proceedings.
Last fall, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the three and asked a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA science could aid the men or uphold the convictions.