Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. aka West Memphis Three are now free men. Nearly after two decades, the trio, imprisoned for murdering three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993, walked out of a courtroom on Friday proclaiming their innocence.
The defendants agreed to take an Alford plea, a legal maneuver that allows them to continue to claim their innocence, while accepting that prosecutors have enough evidence against them.
Echols, 37, had been on death row, while Baldwin, 37, and Misskelley, 36, had been serving their life sentences. The release of the three men, who were teenagers at the time of killings in the Arkansas-Tennessee border town of West Memphis, followed a test of DNA evidence at the crime scene couldn't find any genetic material belonging to the men.
I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea, Echols told the judge. The other two also stressed their innocence.
Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest, Misskelley said.
Nude maimed bodies of three eight-year-old boys, named Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore, were found in an Arkansas ditch in May 1993.
The murders took place at a time when there was a panic about satanic cults. This is what led the police of West Memphis to focus on Echols, who used to wear complete black and considered himself a Wiccan, New York Times reported.
The inquiry eventually led to Misskelley, who, after almost 12 hours of police interrogation, confessed to the murders involving Echols and Baldwin.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in November 2010 that since there was enough evidence, a new hearing will take place in December 2011 to determine whether to have a new trial. However, Echols' lawyers started working on a deal to set them free.
As far as the state is concerned, this case is closed, prosecutor Scott Ellington said, adding the plea deal did not amount to exoneration and that the state still believed the men were guilty, Reuters reported.
On the other hand, the defendants said in a press conference that they would seek justice for the victims and try to clear their names.
The deal was not perfect, by any means, Echols said. But at least it brings closure to some areas, and in some aspects.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
The 1996 HBO documentary titled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills made headlines when it gained attention of some celebrities, including Vedder and Natalie Maines, who later proved instrumental in funding a legal team to win the three a new trial.
A movie, based on the West Memphis Three, is also on its way. Atom Egoyan, the Egyptian-born director, announces his plans to shoot a movie in early spring 2012.