JONESBORO, Ark.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were freed today from prison after serving eighteen years for being wrongfully convicted in the murder of three children in 1993. Their freedom was based upon a plea agreement with Craighead County prosecutor Scott Ellington, in which, while maintaining their innocence, the three agreed to an Alford plea to the original charges. They were released based upon time served. The three men appeared before Judge David N. Laser, in Craighead County Court in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As part of the plea agreement, Damien Echols’s capital murder conviction was vacated.
Damien Echols said, “I cannot believe that this day has come. Despite my innocence, I doubted whether the system would ever actually set me free. I have spent half my life behind bars as Prisoner No. SK 931. Today, I can start to live the rest of it as Damien Wayne Echols. To my wife Lorri Davis, my attorneys, friends and supporters from Little Rock to Seattle to New Zealand, thanks to all of you who have stood by us and helped make this day a reality.”
Jason Baldwin said, “As an innocent man, this is not what I thought justice would look like. But I am incredibly grateful for our freedom, and for all those countless people who worked so tirelessly to help us obtain it.”
“This is a compromise resolution which brings an end to eighteen years of litigation and, most importantly, frees the West Memphis 3 to reclaim their lives. Damien, Jason and Jessie maintain their innocence, but recognize that it was in their ‘best interests’ to accept a certain resolution like this before another eighteen years passed while they were fighting for their freedom in an imperfect criminal justice system,” said Echols’s attorney Stephen Braga, of the law firm of Ropes & Gray.
“We could not have gotten to this point without the support of so many of our good friends and family, the incredible legal work, and all those who have stood behind us throughout this entire ordeal. I would not have been able to do this without the strength, tenacity, discipline and intelligence that Damien has exhibited over all these years. That is the man who he is,” said Lorri Davis, Echols’s wife.
Longtime supporter Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder said, “We are so grateful for the release of these three innocent men through the ‘Alford plea,’ a plea which essentially exists to right the wrongs of an imperfect system of justice. While we celebrate the freedom of Damien, Jason, and Jessie, we are also mindful that justice has been only half served. Three men lost eighteen years of their lives to a wrongful conviction, and the killer of three young boys has still not been brought to justice. It is my hope that as the West Memphis 3 begin to build their lives anew, the investigation of the real killer is pursued with renewed vigor.”
An Alford plea is a rarely used agreement that recognizes the imperfection in the legal system and allows there to be some measure of justice in a case. The defendants plead to the charges, but maintain their innocence. It is similar to a sentence commutation in many ways. The plea deal does not preclude new evidence of their innocence from being presented to authorities leading to a full pardon. The agreement does not include any parole and it completely removes the death sentence. There are some stipulations that the men must not commit a felony during a certain period following the deal or they could be returned to prison.
This stunning development was the basis of negotiations initiated between Echols’s attorneys Stephen Braga and Patrick Benca and the prosecutor’s office, and included Jessie Misskelley’s attorneys, Michael Burt and Jeff Rosenzweig, and Jason Baldwin’s attorneys, John Phillipsborn and Blake Hendrix. The legal work of Echols’s attorneys Dennis Riordan and Don Horgan was instrumental in convincing the Arkansas Supreme Court to rule favorably in the case. (www.wm3.org, www.falseconfessions.org)
Longtime friends from the music and entertainment community with a long history and passionate commitment to freeing these men include Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Kelly Curtis, Simon Renshaw, Nicole Vandenberg, Sarah Seiler, Jacob Pitts, Margaret Cho, Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur, Dani Harrison, Ruth and Bill Carter, the late Lisa Blount, Ray McKinnon and many others. They have been joined by tens of thousands of grass roots supporters from around the globe.
Academy award-winning film director Sir Peter Jackson, who directed The Lord of the Rings trilogy and who is currently directing a feature film adaptation of The Hobbit, has played a leading role behind the scenes in the case of the West Memphis 3. Over the past seven years, Jackson and his partner, producer Fran Walsh, have funded key investigative efforts on behalf of the defense, in an effort to prove the wrongful conviction of the three men in prison. This has included financing extensive private investigation over a number of years, which has led to uncovering crucial new DNA evidence. Jackson and Walsh have also been instrumental in hiring some of the country’s leading forensic experts to re-evaluate the case and uncover new witnesses, all of which contributed to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision to reopen the case.
The effort to free the West Memphis 3 began almost from the day the three were wrongfully convicted with the establishment of the WM3.org support group. Burk Sauls, Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley and Lisa Fancher embarked on a 15-year effort to bring attention to and raise funds for the case. As a result, support for the innocence of the West Memphis 3 has grown dramatically over the years.
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky directed and produced two award-winning HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost 1 and Paradise Lost 2, which brought worldwide attention to the murders and made a compelling case of injustice. Most early supporters learned of the case through these two films. A third film is due for release shortly.
Mara Leveritt, author of Devil’s Knot, the definitive work on the case, was one of the first journalists to raise serious questions about the original convictions of the West Memphis 3. She has been an ardent supporter of efforts to bring about a new trial through her writing and lecturing on the subject.
The public advocacy group Arkansas Take Action (ATA) led recent efforts to raise both local and national awareness and support for the three based upon new evidence of their innocence. They were instrumental in changing the hearts and minds of many in the state of Arkansas as well as assisting in uncovering evidence of juror misconduct in the case.
Little Rock business people Capi Peck and Brent Peterson founded ATA along with Lorri Davis. They were joined in this Herculean effort by Holly Ballard, David Jauss, John Hardin, Rob Fisher, Stephanie Carruthers, Laird Williams, Heather Martin-Herron, Tony Peck, Mary Horn, Bryan Frazier, Martin Eisley, Mike Poe, Claire LaFrance and many others.
Private investigator Rachael Geiser played an important role in developing new evidence in the case. ATA brought in decorated NYPD homicide detective Jay Salpeter who set up a confidential tip line that resulted in uncovering new evidence in the case, including three eyewitnesses who placed Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one the victims, with the three children immediately before they disappeared.
Attorneys of Conscience is a group of Arkansas attorneys that formed in support of the West Memphis 3. To date, 26 Arkansas attorneys, led by Ken Swindle of Rogers, had signed on to urge “with a unified voice” that flaws in this case be corrected.
Thanks to Charlotte Morgan, Nick Arons, Gita Drury, Jonathan Richman and Nicole Montalbano, Cally Salzman, Douglas Giametto, John Gray, Tom Kapinos, Gary Lippman, Peter Yarrow, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Lear, Philippa Boyens, Seth Miller, Randall Jamail, Kelly Slater, Jenet O’Keefe, Kelly Canary, Jen Denike, Kate Tippett, Linda Bessette, Anna Cox, Hirado Roche, Oliver Driver, Stephanie, Ed Millet, David Perry Ellis, Sammy and Sherry Chico, Shea, Sophia, Sydney, Cela, August, Harry and Lynn Davis, Jamie Thomas, Jim Pfeifer, Craig Stamper, MaryAnn Britton and so many.
Public advocacy expert Lonnie Soury assisted in leading the public campaign to free the West Memphis 3 and Pam Akison helped develop the website and internet outreach.
Steven Drizen and Laura Nirider from the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions along with the 13,000-member National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers submitted a joint amicus brief to the Arkansas Supreme Court asking to overturn the convictions. The Innocence Project was involved in establishing protocols for DNA testing after the Arkansas legislature adopted legislation that allowed for innocence claims based upon new DNA findings.
The Arkansas Supreme Court had recently reopened the case in a unanimous decision that directed the lower court to review all new DNA and other evidence of their innocence in establishing whether or not there should be a new trial. That hearing was scheduled to begin in December.
In 1993, shortly after three eight-year-old boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, police arrested Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley and charged the three teenagers with murder based solely upon an error-filled and police-coerced false confession, extracted from 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr. After 12 hours of questioning, without counsel or parental consent, mentally disabled Jessie Misskelley, lured with promises of reward money, repeated back to the police what they wanted to hear.
From the beginning, the police conducted almost no investigation other than to try to link Damien Echols to the murders. Other leads in the case, including eyewitness accounts that a man was found with blood on him near the crime scene on the night of the murders, went uninvestigated.
Jessie Misskelley recanted his statement, stating that the police forced, via threat and the lure of money, the story he told, but it was too late. Jessie Misskelley was tried first because he refused to testify against Damien and Jason, knowing that his so-called confession implicating the three of them was untrue. Constitutionally, Jessie’s “confession” could not be used against Damien and Jason.
A panicked community, desperate police, overzealous prosecutors and a rush to judgment condemned them. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, no weapon, no motive, and no connection to the victims.
New evidence of their innocence had been presented in court in recent years including new DNA testing that revealed that none of the DNA at the crime scene matched the three defendants, while a hair linked to the stepfather of one of the children was found in the knots used to bind another of the boys. Some of the country’s leading pathologists have presented evidence that the wounds found on the children were primarily the result of post mortem animal bites and not knife wounds as prosecutors believed. Shocking juror misconduct was also uncovered in the case that revealed that Jessie Misskelley’s coerced confession was introduced into deliberations at the Echols/Baldwin trial, which was constitutionally forbidden. For more information: www.freewestmemphis3.org, www.wm3.org, www.falseconfessions.org.
Statement From Damien Echols
To all my friends and family, my attorneys and advocates, and to those of you from every corner of this earth who have stood beside us these long years, please know that I will forever be indebted to all of you for helping me to become a free man. Each and every day I was the beneficiary of acts of kindness and humanity from people of all walks of life, of all ages, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. The enormity of the support Lorri and I received throughout this struggle is humbling.
I have now spent half my life on death row. 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. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.
I am not alone as there are tens of thousand of men and woman in this country who have been wrongfully convicted, forced into a false confession, sentenced to death or a lifetime in prison. I am hopeful that one day they too will be able to stand with their friends and family to declare their innocence.
This whole experience has taught me much about life, human nature, American justice, survival and transcendence.
I will hopefully take those lessons with me as I embark on the next chapter in my journey and along the way look forward to enjoying some of those simple things in life like spending Christmastime, Halloween and my birthday with those I love.