By: Kristen Hegel
The “West Memphis Three” was the nickname given to the three teens convicted of the 1993 murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Those teens, now men, were wrongfully convicted and walked free last Friday after reaching a plea agreement.
It was the murder that shocked the nation when the bodies of second-graders Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were discovered mutilated in a ditch. At the time of the murders, investigators had no answers so they took Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. into custody. Throughout the trial, prosecutors claimed the teenagers committed the crimes because they acted upon their satanic beliefs. Although there was no evidence linking the teens to the case, Echols was sentenced to death and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.
“I have now spent half my life on death row,” Echols, who came within three weeks of execution at one point, said. “It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars.”
The three men agreed to a plea where they maintain their innocence, but acknowledge that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Echols andBaldwinentered a plea on three counts of first-degree murder, while Misskelley’s plea consisted of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.Arkansasgovernor, Mike Beebe, won’t consider pardoning the men until their sentence is up. Because of a ten-year suspended sentence, the pardon won’t come for at least another decade.
On the day of their release, Echols and Baldwin spent time with their family and friends, including celebrities Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, who have advocated for their innocence. They also spent time trying to catch up with the technology they have missed out on. For the West Memphis Three and their supporters, their release from jail is a victory, but for others it is anything but that. The prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, commented, “I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these children but the three defendants who pled guilty today.”
“I don’t know what kind of deal they worked up. Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you, and you can walk free for killing somebody,” Steve Branch, father of one of the victims, said. Another parent of one of the victims has a different opinion about the men’s innocence. “They’re innocent. They did not kill my son,” John Mark Byers said before the plea hearing.
While the controversy over the West Memphis Three’s innocence continues, the men will try to enjoy their new found freedom. According to their defense attorney, Stephen Braga, Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley and their supporters want to see that the real killer is found and brought to justice. “He’s still out there,”Bragasaid. “The right guys have been set free.”