UPDATE: Talk Business contributor Suzi Parker says that an effort is underway from supporters of the WM3 to have them pardoned. Watch her interview below to learn more about the next chapter in this 18-year odyssey.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were given life sentences or were on Death Row for their convictions in the murders of three West Memphis children — Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore – were set free today.
The "West Memphis Three" (WM3) as they are known had developed a celebrity cult following over the years from supporters who claimed the evidence that convicted them was flimsy.
"Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest," Misskelley said at a press conference in Jonesboro on Friday. He added that the plea deal was the only route to end the Death Row sentence of Echols.
The WM3 took an "Alford guilty plea" to an amended charge of first degree murder and were released to time served in an agreement with Prosecutor Scott Ellington. In laymen’s terms, an "Alford guilty plea" is a no contest plea where the accused claim their innocence, but plead guilty anyway to get the deal instead of risk trial.
"Some are happy, some are angry, and others are perplexed. Such is the case at the conclusion of every trial. This one is no different," said Ellington.
DNA evidence apparently failed to tie the WM3 to the crime scene and there have been a number of circumstances that would make a re-trial of the case more difficult for the state. The Arkansas Supreme Court had ordered a hearing this fall to consider new evidence.
"In light of these circumstances I decided to entertain plea offers that were being proposed by the defense. I never considered any arrangement that would negate the verdicts of those two juries. Guilt or innocence was never on the table," Ellington said. "Today’s proceeding allows the defendants the freedom of speech to say they are innocent, but the fact is, they just plead guilty. I strongly believe that the interests of justice have been served today."
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose office was working with Ellington on the upcoming Supreme Court hearing, said, "I continue to believe that these defendants are guilty of the crimes for which they have now been twice convicted."
“As Attorney General, I always respect the discretion and judgment of elected prosecutors. Prosecutors know their cases better than anyone. In this case, Mr. Ellington has exercised his discretion in such a way that has led to nine murder convictions that can never be appealed," McDaniel said.