Three US men convicted as teenagers of kidnapping, torturing and mutilating three eight-year-old Cub Scouts were set free on Friday after serving nearly 20 years in jail.
The “West Memphis Three” — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — were convicted in a 1994 trial marked by local hysteria over allegations that the grisly killings were part of a Satanic ritual.
The three boys — Steve Branch, Chris Byers, and Michael Moore — were found in a ditch, stripped naked and hog-tied. Byers had bled to death after his penis was cut off and the other two had drowned in the muddy water.
The three convicts have always maintained their innocence, however, and a 1996 documentary questioning the conviction led actors Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder to embrace their cause.
Investigators found no physical evidence to connect the three to the murders, and recent DNA testing — which did not exist at the time — found only inconclusive evidence pointing to two completely different individuals, leading the Arkansas state supreme court to set Friday’s hearing.
Fearing a new trial following nearly two decades of knotted legal appeals, prosecutors agreed to a deal in which the three pleaded guilty in return for their being sentenced only to the 18 years they had already served.
“Today’s proceeding allows the defendants the freedom of speech to say they are innocent, but the fact is, they just pled guilty,” District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington said.
“I strongly believe that the interests of justice have been served today… The legal tangle that has become known as the West Memphis Three case is finished.”
The three teenagers insist they are innocent, and Baldwin said he was opposed to the plea deal but agreed to it to save Echols from death row.
“In the beginning, we told nothing but the truth that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it,” Baldwin told reporters.
“Then we had to come here, and the only thing the state would do for us was to say: ‘Hey, we’ll let you go, but only if you admit guilt.’ That’s not justice no matter how you look at it.
“They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys.”
The original case was based on an apparent confession by Misskelley, then 17, in a tape-recorded interview with police, a statement he later recanted.
He then refused to repeat the confession even when he was offered a more lenient prison term than the life sentence he eventually received.
The confession led to the conviction of Echols, then 18 and the alleged ringleader, who was sentenced to death, and Baldwin, who received a life sentence.
Prosecutors sought to present the murders as part of cult ritual, pointing out — during the trial in the conservative southern town — that Baldwin wore black tee-shirts and listened to heavy-metal bands like Metallica.
The 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” presented the teenagers as having been unfairly singled out because they were nonconformists and raised questions about the trial.
One key prosecution witness later said she had fabricated her testimony under police pressure, and her son, a friend of the deceased boys who was eight at the time, has said police “messed with my words,” according to the Arkansas Times, which has closely followed the case since 1993.
The DNA evidence, while inconclusive, linked a hair found at the scene of the crime to the stepfather of one of the victims and another hair to a friend of the stepfather, according to the Arkansas Times.
Family members of two of the victims have in recent years come out in support of the three, saying they were wrongfully convicted.
“They did not kill my son,” John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of one of the boys, told reporters outside the courthouse on Friday.
“This is not right, and the people of Arkansas need to stand up and raise hell, because three innocent men are going to have to claim today they are guilty… and that’s bull(expletive).”