Damien Echols had been on death row for the murders. Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were both serving life sentences. They had been nicknamed the "West Memphis Three".
Their first big break came in 2007, when new forensic evidence showed that the DNA from the crime scene did not match any of the defendants. After four years of appeals, a plea agreement was reached by which the three would enter Alford pleas in exchange for having their sentences reduced to time served. Under an Alford plea, a defendant can assert his innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to obtain a conviction.
So what led to the convictions if the DNA says otherwise? Campbell Robertson, writing for The New York Times, describes the web of hearsay, speculation, and coercion that led to the guilty verdicts:
"The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols's.Now the DNA evidence exists that casts reasonable doubt as to their guilt. Why then were they forced to acknowledge otherwise as a condition for their release? It was either that or remain in prison (and, in Echols' case, remain on death row).
"After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.
"Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution's argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley's confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury's foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors."
Lawyers for the three defendants say that they will pursue full exoneration. That would be one big step towards true justice in this case.
Another big step would be to reopen the case and find the real killer(s).
We owe it to the victims and their families.