Arkansas judge accepts plea deal, frees Memphis 3

August 19, 2011 - 12:15 PM

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) — Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and dumping their bodies in an Arkansas ditch changed their pleas Friday, resolving a yearslong effort to win their freedom.

Under a plea bargain, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were being freed immediately. The families of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were notified about the pact ahead of time but were not asked to approve it.

The defendants, known by their supporters as the West Memphis Three, agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them. They were credited with time served, and Echols is being freed from Arkansas' death row. They 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.

"I believe this case is closed," Ellington said.

The May 5, 1993, killings were particularly gruesome. The three boys were found nude, and hogtied, and rumors of Satanism roiled the community in the weeks following their deaths. Branch and Moore drowned in about 2 feet of water; Byers bled to death and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.

Police had few leads until receiving a tip that Echols had been seen mud-covered the night the boys disappeared. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated Baldwin and Echols in the killings.

"Then they tied them up, tied their hands up," Misskelley said in the statement to police, parts of which were tape-recorded. After describing sodomizing and other violence, he went on: "And I saw it and turned around and looked, and then I took off running. I went home, then they called me and asked me, 'How come I didn't stay? I told them, I just couldn't.'"

Misskelley later recanted, and defense lawyers said the then-17-year-old got several parts of the story incorrect. An autopsy said there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. Miskelley had said the older boys abducted the Scouts in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.