"I'm still very much in shock. I'm still overwhelmed. I spent the last decade in solitary confinement. I'm not used to being around anyone, especially this many people," said Damien Echols, from a press conference announcing his freedom and that of Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. after the three served 18 years for the homicide of three eight-year-old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas.
Surrounded by their attorneys and supporters Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley timidly addressed the crowd of reporters inside the Craighead County Courthouse in Jonesboro, Arkansas on Friday morning, just moments after the three entered an Alford Plea allowing for their release from prison. The West Memphis Three have been in prison since 1993 after they were convicted of killing Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers.
An Alford Plea is a guilty plea where the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence. Under the Alford plea, the defendant does admit that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said a 2010 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling brought to light the possibility that the defendants could receive a new trial, and allegations of misconduct on behalf of a juror in the Echols-Baldwin trial could have resulted in a new trial being ordered by the circuit or federal court.
"I further believe it would have been impossible to put on a proper case against the defendants in this particular case after 18 years of extended litigation," Ellington told reporters. "Even if the state were to prevail in a new trail, sentences could be different and the appeals process would begin all over again."
Other contributing factors to the state's acceptance of an Alford Plea include the fact that two of the victims' families have sided with the defense, the mother of one witness who testified against Echols has publicly doubted her daughter's truthfulness, and the state crime lab employee who collected fiber evidence in the Echols and Baldwin homes after their arrests has died.
"Today's proceedings 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," said Ellington, who claimed he still believes the three are guilty of the murders.
Ellington said the Alford Plea does allow the state to file new charges if new evidence arises.
"[The Alford Plea] is not perfect by any means," said Echols, seated alongside wife Lori Davis. "But it brings closure in some aspects."
Baldwin's attorney Blake Hendrix told reporters that Baldwin was initially resistant to pleading guilty, but decided to make the plea to free his friend Echols from death row. Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.
"There are many reasons Jason made this decision, but one was taking one man off of death row. He saved a man's life," Hendrix said.
"[Damien] has had it so much worse than I have. I'm just glad he's out and now he'll be with his wife," Baldwin said.
Echols told reporters he was "just tired" because he hadn't slept in four days, since he learned he would soon be a free man. Davis said she was "thrilled with the results."
"Three men are free," Davis said. "And I have this man I love very much."
Photos by Morgan Jon Fox.