As the wires lay twisted, so too did the stories about the murders of three young boys in West Memphis in 1993, which led to the arrest of three West Memphis teenagers for their murders. The twisted wires were also a symbol of the support given to the West Memphis Three as they awaited a landmark decision, one that would make them free men.
For nearly two decades, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols have been behind bars for the gruesome murders of three eight year old boys in Robinhood Hills, near West Memphis. The three men have always maintained their innocence.
Dubbed the West Memphis Three, following the events that led to two HBO documentaries and films, the three men took a plea that would allow them to walk free for the first time in 18 years.
The Alford Plea allows the state to maintain the guilt of the three men, while they were allowed to maintain their innocence. The three were given credit for the 18 years served and given 10 years of unsupervised probation. If they reoffend, the men will be sent to prison for 21 years. Echols and baldwin entered pleas to three counts of first degree murder. Misskelley entered a guilty plea to one count of first degree murder and two counts of second degree murder. Although they all maintained their innocence, they stated it was in their best interest to accept the plea arrangement.
Others, including Claudia Terry, clad in "Free the West Memphis Three" shirt, were frustrated that the plea had taken away the men's right to sue the state in civil court. "This plea is a contradiction, a black eye to Arkansas' justice system, they have suffered enough now to take their right away to sue the state in civil court, right to sue the state in civil court. "That is ridiculous," said Terry.
John Mark Byers, father of victim Christopher Byers, who had moved to Cherokee Village at one time, was also present. Byers stole media attention, proclaiming his support for the three men and making statements against one of the other victim's fathers, Terry Hobbs, whose DNA was found on one of the ligatures which bound the victims. Hobbs denies involvement and is not considered a suspect.
From the beginning, tales of satanism and other evil doing were reported in the media, thanks in part to a juvenile probation officer who dubbed Echols as the ringleader. As a young teen, Echols was considered "different," as he dressed in all black and listened to hard rock music. The town was terrified anyone could harm a child in such a terrible way. Swift justice was sought, and ultimately, obtained, as the three men, now in their mid-thirties, were arrested, tried and convicted of the murders. Echols was sentenced to the death penalty, Baldwin to life in prison and Misskelley to life in prison plus forty years.
The men, Echols, 19 at the time of the murders, Misskelley 17, and Baldwin, 16, all came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and were convicted only on circumstantial evidence.
Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, confessed to the crimes after hours of interrogation and being told he could not return home until he told the truth. He implicated the other two men in his confession, which led to their arrests.
However, his confession left gaping holes in his account of the events, including telling detectives the boys had been kidnapped during the day, when they were documented as being in school. He also claimed they were sodomized, something that was later disproved. The confession was not used in the trial.
The victims were thought to have been sexually mutilated but evidence indicated, after the trial, the injuries could have been consistent with turtles biting the bodies, as they lay in the drainage ditch.
There was no DNA connecting any of the three suspects to the crimes. Investigators believe the crime occurred in the woods, while through the years, the possibility of it not being the crime scene have been explored. A knife recovered in a pond behind Baldwin's home was proven to be inconclusive as to being the murder weapon.
Shortly after the arrests, an HBO film crew took an interest in the case and filmed a documentary entitled, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robinhood Hills." With its release came a massive stream of national and international media attention, leading to celebrity support by Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam's Eddie Veder, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, and numerous others.
This began the path that would help the boys, who had very limited finances, revive their defense and blaze an 18 year road that led to their eventual release.
A book entitled, "Paradise Lost" by Arkansas Times writer Mara Leveritt , also cast doubt on the case, as she detailed holes in the prosecution's methods, and made many who initially believed the three were guilty change their viewpoint.
During the proceedings, it was hard to find a person who did not support the three outside in the packed parking lot of the court house. For blocks, the streets were lined with thousands displaying signs and wearing tee shirts in their honor.
Parents of two of the victims have also given their support to the innocence of the three men and would like to see the real killers punished for the crimes. However, Steve Branch, father of Steven Branch, was escorted from the courtroom after making remarks about the men's guilt.
Telling a CNN affiliate at the hearing, "I don't know what kind of deal they worked up. Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you and you can walk free for killing somebody." Branch also said, " If the justice allows this, it is going to open the door for every convicted murderer on death row to say "yes" I killed them and be set free."
Discussion among the news reporters outside the courtroom felt the case would set precedence for DNA testing and admissibility and could possibly free others who have been wrongly convicted.
From blogs and comment sections on news stations, there are still many who believe the men are guilty and are outraged by their release, citing their release as, "proof money will make anything go away." Others felt national media attention and the celebrity status of the case aided in their release.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said, the pleas that were entered validated the decision of the jurors who sent the men to prison. The plea also spares Arkansas the possibility of a retrial, which could be difficult to prosecute after so many years.
The men were working to obtain new trials when the deal was offered, and even had hearings set for December. The prosecutor further stated, "I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who pled guilty today." Ellington acknowledged that if new evidence arises, the state could still file charges, but said he considered the case closed.
One of Echol's attorney's, Stephen Braga, claims the freed men and their supporters will rally to see that the real killer is eventually found. Echols stated during a post hearing press conference, "It is not perfect by any means. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is, we can do it from the outside."
The plea seems to indicate the state doubted their ability to win a retrial. While Baldwin considered not taking the deal and moving forward with a new trial, he agreed to save Echol's life. Echol's was as close as three weeks from execution in 1994.
Braga credits DNA evidence, the new hearing and a new judge, as being instrumental in the men's release.
State Attorney Dustin McDaniel made a public statement saying he believes the three convicted are the real killers.
Echols once said in an interview with Diane Sawyer, on ABC, the thing he missed most while in solitary confinement on death row was the smell of rain.
As the three made their first appearance to a cheering crowd, chanting "Freedom, Freedom" and "Justice Prevailed," rain began to gently fall on new lives for the three.
Donald Horgan, one of Echol's defense attorneys, said, "For every group of defendants like these that ultimately get some attention paid to them, there are 100 who are innocent, who have no legal or financial support."
Producers for the third and final Paradise Lost were also at the proceedings. It is unclear when the documentary will air, but it is sure to attract continued interest in this high profile case.