Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were freed today from prison after serving eighteen years in the wrongful conviction murder of three children in 1993. (see press conference). Their freedom was based upon a plea agreement with prosecutors, in which, while maintaining their innocence, the three agreed to an Alford plea to the original charges. The three men appeared before Judge David N. Laser, in Craighead County Court in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where their original trials took place and were immediately released As part of the plea agreement, Damien Echols capital murder conviction was vacated.
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.
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. While this plea agreement is imperfect, to be able to walk through the doors of death row is something I have dreamed about since the day we were wrongfully convicted.
“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.
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 are celebratory today for their freedom, we are also mindful that justice has been only half served with their release. In our hearts remains a special place for the three young boys who were tragically murdered 18 years ago, and the never ending hope that one day their real killers will be brought to justice.”
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.