In 1994 Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of killing three boy scouts. The prosecutor claimed the trio killed the boys as part of a Satanic ritual, a theory the state supported by pointing to the trio’s black clothes and love of heavy metal music. Following their conviction, all three maintained their innocence, persisting for 18 years until the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a new hearing based on DNA evidence the defense argued exonerated their clients. Today Judge David Laser accepted a new plea agreement that released the trio:
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley agreed to change their pleas from not guilty to guilty in the 1993 killings in West Memphis, Ark.
They did so using a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict them.
The three were placed on 10 years’ probation and if they re-offend they could be sent back to prison for 21 years, Prosecutor Scott Ellington said.
Ellington has reason to brag. The trio accepted an Alford plea. The plea allows the trio to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that there was enough evidence to convict them. However, there is a twist: the plea also prevents the trio for suing the state for wrongful imprisonment should they win a new trial and get acquitted.
Again, Ellingtion had a reason to do that. The evidence against the trio was questionable:
After the slayings, West Memphis police interviewed Misskelley, who told them he watched as Baldwin, then 16, and Echols, then 19, killed the boys. One detective said Misskelley had also talked about being in a cult…. Supporters said Misskelley’s confession was false and coerced, and have noted that he’s mentally disabled. Misskelley later recanted the confession.
As for the DNA evidence:
Attorneys for Echols, in a February filing, said that DNA testing of a hair on a cord used to bind one of the victims was consistent with the DNA of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Steven Branch.
Hobbs has denied seeing the three victims on the day of their disappearance, but Echols’ attorneys said they had found three eyewitnesses who said Hobbs was “the last adult seen with the victims” on the night they disappeared.
Indeed, the whole process was wrought with problems, making the plea deal the best possible result for the state. They get to claim they got the bad guys, but cannot be held responsible should it prove they got it wrong.
Assuming new evidence does prove the trio’s innocence, the state or federal Supreme Courts might overturn the plea agreement. It seems unethical and immoral to absolve the state of culpability for wrongful imprisonment.