The men served 18 years in prison after their convictions for three brutal murders

By Stephen M. Silverman
August 19, 2011 02:20 PM
James Byard/The Jonesboro Sun/AP

Three men convicted of the brutal murders of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in a 1993 murder case were released from jail as free men on Friday, thanks to what The New York Times termed an intricate legal scheme that permitted them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict them.

Known as the West Memphis Three – Damien W. Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 36 – had been imprisoned since their arrests for the murders of youngsters Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.

The district judge in Arkansas declared that their time had been served. They also each received a 10-year suspended sentence.

“Only time will tell as to whether this was the right decision,” prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington told reporters.

Freedom came five months before a planned hearing to decide if, given recently discovered DNA evidence that did not place any of them at the scene of the crime, the trio should be granted a new trial.

In May 1993, the remains of the boys were discovered after being dumped naked in a drainage ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis, Ark., called Robin Hood Hills. They appeared to have been mutilated, with their hands bound to their feet.

Damien Echols
Arkansas Department of Correction/AP

At the time of their arrests, Echols was 18; Baldwin, 16; and Misskelley, 17. Because of the violent nature of the killings, investigators focused attention on possible satanic cult activity. In particular, reports The Times, Echols practiced Wicca, a form of witchcraft.

After being grilled by police for nearly 12 hours, Misskelley, described as somewhat mentally challenged, confessed to the murders and implicated the two others, despite the fact his confession didn’t quite jibe with details found by authorities.

Over the years, doubts about the guilt of the men arose, though not by all of the victims’ families, says the newspaper. Still, among those celebrities who took up the men’s cause have been Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits, Winona Ryder and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines.