FREE MEN: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin (L to R) meet press following their release.

  • FREE MEN: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin (L to R) meet press following their release. Brian Chilson photo

UPDATE: CNN has posted video of the hearing this morning.

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By Mara Leveritt

After the bang of a judge’s gavel, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., walked out of a Jonesboro courtroom as free men, shortly before noon. They remain convicted felons, but they are not even on parole.

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Circuit Judge David Laser accepted a plea agreement worked out between the state attorney general’s office, the local prosecutor and attorneys representing the men, who have spent nearly 18 years in prison. Under the agreement, called an Alford plea, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley told the court they would plead guilty to reduced charges of first-degree, rather than capital murder, while continuing to maintain that they are innocent. An Alford plea allows defendants to assert their innocence, while conceding that the state has enough evidence to convict them.

Echols, 36, and Baldwin, 34, pleaded to three first-degree murder counts and Misskelley to one first-degree and two second-degree murder counts. They then filled out paperwork for their release. The judge had the men testify about their education and whether they were under the influence of drugs. The judge made them understand they did not have to plead guilty but to continue to seek a new trial. They asserted their innocence but said they were entering the plea on advice of counsel as being in their best interest.

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They were sentenced to time served — more than 216 months — with 120 months suspended. If they commit law violations, they’ll have to serve that time. The biological father of a victim, Steven Branch, rose to object to the sentence. He said the plea deal would open a Pandora’s box as he had in angry TV interviews yesterday. He was led from the courtroom by officers.

The judge commended the outside effort that had been made to win the defendants’ release. He said it was the first Alford plea he’d handled, but thought it was in the best interest of all involved. Judge Laser said: “I believe this ruling will give rise to discussions for a long time to come. I don’t think it will make the pain go away for the familides of the victims. I don’t think it will make the pain go away for the families of defendants. It won’t take away a minute of the time these men have served in prison. This is a tragedy on all sides.” The judge said he held a private session with parties before the public hearing to make sure all understood the unusual agreement and all questions were answered.

Afterward, defense attorney Dennis Riordon, described the arcane procedure as “oxymoronic” and that nothing like it had ever happened in American jurisprudence. He explained that the legal standard to entertain a plea required the judge to first decide that there was sufficient evidence to show the defendants would be acquitted if granted a new trial. But then he also had to decide, in accepting an Alford guilty plea, that there was sufficient evidence for conviction.

A news conference by parties in the case followed. Prosecutor Scott Ellington defended the decision, though he held firmly to the state’s belief that the defendants were the only ones responsible for the three deaths. He made clear further investigation of others was NOT planned. He released a statement we’ve printed in full on another post He said he believed there was a strong chance a new trial would have been ordered because of jury misconduct, a fact along with new DNA evidence that complicated the case for the state. At this point, it would have been “practically impossible to put on a proper case against defendants,” he said.

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At the news conference, the defendants said the outcome was “imperfect” (Echols) and Baldwin said he opposed it initially because it “wasn’t justice.” Misskelley, asked about fear of threats on his life by those who might disagree with the outcome, said he was accustomed to threats from 18 years in prison. Baldwin said he ultimately joined the decision to save Echols’ life, his attorney said. The men’s attorney, Dennis Riordan, said the state’s acceptance of the plea deal was a “recognition of their innocence,” despite Ellington’s assertion to the contrary.

THE VICTIMS: From left, Chris Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch.

  • THE VICTIMS: From left, Chris Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch.

The state’s ability to convict the men was established in 1994, when two juries found the men, who were teenagers at the time, guilty of murdering three eight-year-old boys — Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore — the year before. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley to life without parole. They have since become known as the West Memphis Three.

The plea agreement means that attorneys for the state will not have to test whether they could win a conviction again, if new trials were ordered. Until today, a hearing to determine whether the men deserved new trials was scheduled for Laser’s court in December.

With this agreement, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley leave court as convicted murderers who have served an amount of time in prison that state officials accept as sufficient. However, all three preserve the right to attempt to clear their names in the future by bringing new evidence to court.