They became known as the "West Memphis 3" by those who had long believed in their innocence.
After a 1996 HBO documentary aired questioning the convictions of three men, several celebrities funded a legal effort to try to win them a new trial. A new hearing in the case was scheduled in December after none of the DNA evidence collected in the case matched the defendants.
No One Else Involved?
Rather than retry an 18-year-old case, prosecutors decided to offer the plea deal.
"I believe that it would be practically impossible after 18 years to put on a proper trial in this case," Prosecutor Scott Ellington said. "I believe this case is closed and there are no other individuals involved."
Under an Alford plea, defendants can maintain their innocence while admitting that prosecutors have enough evidence against them to secure a conviction. All three men insisted they are innocent at Friday's hearing.
Misskelley Confessed to Crime
"Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest," Misskelley said, who at one time when he was 17 years old confessed to the crime and implicated Echols and Baldwin.
Misskelley was tried separately and refused to testify against the other two. His confession was not admitted into evidence, but defense attorneys later claimed that the jury in the Echols-Baldwin trial heard about the confession anyway.
Misskelley later recanted his confession and defense attorneys pointed out that several aspects of his confession did not match the facts of the case. Some were completely inaccurate.
More Evidence Cited
Usually, a judge will not accept a guilty plea from a defendant who maintains innocence, but under an Alford plea, defendants can claim innocence while admitting that the state has enough evidence to convict them.
Evidence the state had against the three included:
- Statements from two people that Echols bragged about the killings.
- An eyewitness put Echols at the scene.
- Fibers from the boys' clothing was found in Echols' home.
- A knife was found in a pond behind Baldwin's home.
- Echols' knowledge of details not released by police.
At a new conference after the court hearing, Baldwin said he was reluctant to enter the Alford plea to crimes he did not commit, but he agreed to do so to get Echols off death row.
"That's not justice, however you look at it," Baldwin said.
Echols thanked Baldwin for his plea and said the three would continue to work to prove their innocence.
"It's not perfect," he said of the Alford plea agreement. "It's not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects."
Photo: Mug Shot