"West Memphis Three" Set Free After 18 Years in Prison -- Still, "This Was Not Justice"

The men known as the "West Memphis Three" have finally been released from prison after 18 years behind bars, thanks to new evidence supporting their innocence. This is a victory for the WM3 and their supporters (which have included more than a few celebrities over the years), but it still highlights the troubling state of the criminal justice system.

A little background on the case, if you aren't familiar with it: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were charged with the 1993 murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The nature of the murders was disturbing -- the victims were found "naked, bound and in horrific condition, submerged in a creek in the woods," according to court documents, leading some members of the community to conclude that the boys had been victims of an "occult" murder carried out by Satanists.

Enter Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin. A defense attorney for the WM3 describes, in a nutshell, how the three men were so speedily pegged as Satanic murderers:

"They were convicted in a sort of speedy case back in 1993 -- part of a satanic panic in small town community," Stephen Braga, one of the defense attorneys for Damien Echols told "Nightline." "They were the unusual kids in town. ... They dressed in black. They listened to heavy metal music. They were goths before goths were fashionable, so they were easy targets."

Complicating factors, Misskelley, who has mentally disabilities, initially confessed to the murders. He retracted his confession days later.

Echols was put on death row.

In the years since the case, as DNA testing has become widely used, evidence has surfaced to support the WM3's claims of innocence. A recent DNA test potentially links Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the young victims, to the crime scene. According to multiple eye witnesses, Hobbs was the last adult seen with the boys on the night they were murdered. Despite this, the prosecutor in the WM3 case, Scott Ellington, "said that Hobbs was not a suspect and that he considered the case closed."

Ellington also said:

[W]ith new revelations in the case, it was likely the men would have received new trials -- and that it would have been "practically impossible" to put on a proper trial 18 years after the slayings. He noted that two of the victims' families had also decided over time that the men were wrongly accused.

While it's great that the WM3 are now out of prison, the deal they had to strike -- and the many years they spent behind bars -- has left many people feeling that little justice has been done. ABC explains the deal:

A judge accepted a plea deal today that allowed the men to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. It's a rare arrangement known as an Alford plea.

"This is kind of a compromise," said ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams. "This is both the defendants and prosecutor saying, 'We don't want to have another trial and it's time to set them free.' ... This is the defendant saying almost with a wink and a nod, 'Yeah, we'll plead guilty,' in quotes, but the reality is they're saying, 'We didn't do it.'"

Baldwin probably sums it up best: "This was not justice," he said. "In the beginning we told nothing but the truth. We were innocent, and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives."

For more information about the case, visit WM3.org.

AlterNet / By Lauren Kelley

Posted at August 20, 2011, 6:58am

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